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EDITORIAL: No time for complacency

Crab bots sit on the deck of a boat in St. John's harbour.
Crab bots sit on the deck of a boat in St. John’s harbour. — Telegram file photo

It might not be close enough to the Atlantic fishery to even be described as a wake-up call — but it’s something to be aware of about the close quarters of parts of the fishery and fish processing industry, and an example of just how fast COVID-19 can move.

On May 13, the American factory freezer trawler American Dynasty left port in Seattle, Wash.

The vessel’s 126 crew members were screened for COVID-19 and had a minimum five-day quarantine before boarding. They also underwent antibody screening to see if they had already had the virus — none had.

“Only if there were no signs that they were actively infected or contagious were they cleared to board their vessel,” said a statement from American Seafoods, the vessel’s owner.

The ship left for fishing grounds in the Northwest Pacific, but at port in Bellingham, Wash., last week, a crewmember reported feeling sick.

On May 30, test results came back for the entire crew, and 85 tested positive for COVID-19. The ship’s fishing season, which began with hake and was to move to pollock later in the summer, is now on hold.

The problem is that the American seafood industry — like the Canadian industry — is well aware of the risks of COVID-19 in fishing and processing operations and had already spent millions to try and prevent an occurrence of the virus. The western American fishing industry was trying to be particularly vigilant to keep from bringing the virus to isolated parts of the Alaskan coast.

On May 30, test results came back for the entire crew, and 85 tested positive for COVID-19. The ship’s fishing season, which began with hake and was to move to pollock later in the summer, is now on hold.

The emphasis was also to try to cut the virus off before it can make the kind of headway it has gotten in other close-quarters food industry operations, like the Canadian and American meat-packing industry. Meat-packing plants in Canada and the U.S. have served as COVID-19 epicentres, with many having to be shut down for periods of time to enable deep cleaning and changes to workplace safety.

Newfoundland and Labrador is not Washington State. The number of cases we’ve had to deal with in this province is far smaller than the number in Washington, and the amount of community spread that’s happened in that state far outstrips our small nodes of infection.

But there are clear similarities in the operation of fish plants and larger fishing vessels, and it’s something that everyone has to keep in mind when being told that infection prevention methods are necessary, not optional.

The Seattle Times has reported complaints from the family members of some of the crew, saying that other crewmembers weren’t wearing masks as required.

It smacks of complacency — and if there’s one thing that COVID-19 has already shown us, it takes very little in the way of complacency for the virus to gain a critical foothold.

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