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UNH Report: Seafood workers at higher risk for COVID-19

photo of lobster boat
Todd Bookman
(file photo)

Workers in the seafood industry were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 than employees in other food industries, according to a new study from the University of Hampshire.

Tight working conditions on vessels, as well as in seafood processing factories, appears to have played a direct role.

“You have people working, just like in any food processing, in really close quarters, working side by side together, on these food lines,” said Easton White, assistant professor of biological sciences at UNH, who led the study.

White said fishers faced challenges using PPE while onboard vessels, where a wet environment made the use of masks less effective.

The report, published in the journal PeerJ, based its findings on media reports and documented outbreaks between April 2020 and July 2021.

While there are no national statistics, White and colleagues from the University of Vermont, Antioch University, and the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety estimate that there were 65 positive cases per 1,000 workers in seafood during the timeframe of the research, compared to 31 cases per 1,000 workers in the overall food system.

The study highlighted outbreaks in two major American fishing hubs: Alaska and New Bedford, Mass. In New Hampshire, High Liner Foods, a publicly traded seafood processor, temporarily closed its production facility in Portsmouth during the early months of the pandemic following an outbreak.

White noted that along with the health effects of COVID-19, the seafood industry also suffered financially during the early months of the pandemic when restaurants were shuttered or limited to take-out. Facing reduced incomes, White said many fishers worked longer hours or tried to make due with fewer crew members.

In New Bedford, health officials began targeting vaccine and COVID-19 testing efforts toward seafood workers, resulting in “lower rates of COVID-19 than you would expect based on how important that port is for seafood,” said White.

The report found that within the seafood industry, those in processing plants were more likely to contract COVID-19 than those who work on vessels, according to available evidence. Nationally, workers in processing plants are more likely to be women, minorities and immigrants, the authors wrote.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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