TREE LIGHTING – Sitkans gather next to a decorated spruce tree across from City Hall Saturday. Scores turned out for the Chamber of Commerce’s holiday celebration that included caroling, a tree lighting hosted by Mrs. Santa Claus, and remarks by Chamber of Commerce member Loren Olsen and City Administrator John Leach encouraging people to shop in town during the holiday season. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Wrangell City Loses COVID Plan Appeal

By JUNE LEFFLER
KSTK Radio

Wrangell’s proposed restrictions on people arriving to the island community have been shelved after the state said the Southeast city doesn’t have the authority. City leaders had wanted to coordinate the flow of commercial fishermen and fish plant workers expected to arrive for the season.

A state health mandate restricts all nonessential travel except to workers in critical industries. And that supersedes local restrictions. But it allows smaller, isolated towns with limited health care facilities to add restrictions to ward against an outbreak of COVID-19.

In Wrangell, commercial salmon fishing gets going in mid-June. Around that time more than 30 seasonal fish plant workers from out-of-state work in Wrangell’s sole fish processor. The plant manager says the workers will self-quarantine for 14 days before coming into town.

Elected officials in Wrangell wanted copies of mitigation plans that employers in critical industries – skippers and processors – have filed with the state to secure exemptions to travel restrictions. So far state public officials haven’t shared these plans with local authorities.

That doesn’t sit well with Assembly member David Powell. He says a few infected people arriving in Wrangell could snowball.

“And then all of a sudden we could have 10 to 20 cases in here because we didn’t do something,” Powell says.

He wants to see these local mandates in place as soon as possible. But the city recently got word from the state that it lacks the authority to make its own rules. On Wednesday an email arrived from the state’s unified command that Wrangell Medical Center qualifies as a “hub” hospital as defined in the health mandate. 

That frustrated Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka. Wrangell’s hospital is run by the tribal health organization SEARHC – whose regional hub hospital for COVID-19 cases is Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center in Sitka. 

But the mayor says — in the state’s eyes at least — his island town of 2,400 people is not a “small community” since it has a hub hospital.

“We just don’t meet that, and it doesn’t matter what SEARHC thinks it is, all that matters is what the state says it is,” Prysunka says.

The measure ultimately failed 5-2. The assembly did not want to move forward and risk legal action from the state or industries down the line. But Powell was among those that wanted to keep pushing.

“I still feel that this is still critical to the safety of our community and that there is no reason why we would not take action,” he says.

The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported this month that Cordova enacted restrictions similar to what Wrangell had proposed. And the two are very similar communities. Both are off the road system, have fewer than 3,000 residents and have health care facilities categorized as “critical access hospitals,” which the state classifies as hub hospitals.

The seafood industry has been watching this unfold in a number of fishing towns across Alaska. 

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach says the industry isn’t taking its exemptions for granted. The fishing fleet is working to take steps to minimize any health risks.

“We respect and appreciate the communities for hosting us every summer, and we’re working diligently on letting the communities know it is a concern,” Leach says.

 

 

COVID Creates Work In ‘Contact Tracing’

By NAT HERZ
Alaska Public Media

One of Alaska’s first positive cases of COVID-19 was a person who’d been to a grocery store while they were infectious.

Normally, this wouldn’t be cause for concern, given the need for prolonged exposure to significantly increase a person’s risk of getting sick. But in this case, a long wait at the checkout kept the infectious person in line for more than half an hour – potentially exposing the people behind and ahead of them to a deadly disease.

It fell to Drew Shannon, a nurse employed by the Anchorage Health Department, to find those unwitting “close contacts.” Armed with a receipt supplied by the sick person, he worked with the store to reach the two other people from the checkout line, then made sure they were quarantined to keep the disease from spreading further.

Both have now finished their quarantine without developing symptoms.

Shannon’s work is known as “contact tracing,” and it’s a critical piece of public health officials’ battle against COVID-19. The task entails finding, quarantining and monitoring people exposed to a disease, along with identifying the infection’s original source.

In Alaska, the job falls to a network of trained workers, many of whom are epidemiology staff and public health nurses from the state Department of Health and Social Services. In Anchorage, eight city nurses take on many of the cases, with support from school nurses who were reassigned after classes were canceled. One former city nurse even came out of retirement to help.

While public health experts say contact tracing is crucial to keeping COVID-19 in check, the nurses’ regular phone calls and check-ins also bring a measure of humanity and comfort to one of the groups of Alaskans with the highest risk of developing the disease.

“It’s nice to have somebody checking to see if you’re OK,” said Robert Bowles, a 60-year-old Juneau man who tested positive for COVID-19. “The fact that they were calling every day felt good.”

Contact tracing is part of what epidemiologists call “containment” – the essential work of determining where the virus already is so that further spread can be slowed.

In Wuhan, the Chinese city where the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 1,800 teams of epidemiologists, each made up of at least five people, traced tens of thousands of contacts a day, according to the World Health Organization. Up to 5% of contacts were subsequently confirmed to have the disease.

Containment is not the only front on which authorities fight COVID-19. But the work is particularly important in Alaska because of its dispersed and remote villages that lack advanced health care infrastructure, said Joe McLaughlin, the state’s top epidemiologist. That means Alaska will continue its focus on containment even if the number of cases escalates to the point where “widespread community transmission” tests its tracking capacity, McLaughlin said.

Anchorage School District nurse Bethany Zimpelman looks at information with Anchorage Health Department’s Michael Fritz during her shift at the Anchorage Health Department Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

For now, officials say they have enough manpower to handle the cases confirmed each day.

State nurses were checking in with more than 60 people in Ketchikan and 20 in Juneau in recent days, according to Sarah Hargrave, a Juneau-based state nurse supervisor. Anchorage city and school nurses, plus support staff, were tracking 126 close contacts and 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, according to the municipal health department. (Anchorage’s figures may not include people in the city who have recovered or are being monitored by other agencies, like the military.)

Contact tracing starts with a positive test result, which is assigned to an individual nurse or trained public health official for an investigation.

Many of the state and city public health nurses have similar experience investigating other illnesses, such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections like syphilis or gonorrhea. But many of those cases are easier to track than COVID-19, which can be transmitted through sometimes-invisible respiratory droplets.

“Gonorrhea, for example, the mode of transmission is pretty clear,” said Shannon, the Anchorage nurse. “With COVID-19 respiratory droplets, that could be a lot more people.”

The investigator starts by calling the patient with a series of questions about their travel and who they’ve spent time with.

In countries without the U.S.’s privacy protections, public health authorities have reviewed cellphone data, surveillance camera footage and credit card transactions to help with their contact tracing.

In Alaska, nurses can use Facebook or other social media to locate a contact, or they might ask for help from a business. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a system to find people who sat on a plane near someone later diagnosed with COVID-19.

Otherwise, information comes mostly from patients, who are generally eager to cooperate, said McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist. Their close contacts, he added, are “their friends, their family members, their co-workers.”

“They really want to help protect them,” he said.

Close contacts are defined as people who spent more than 5 or 10 minutes within six feet of the patient during their infectious period; they’re asked to quarantine for two weeks. After developing a list, nurses and support staff will then call each patient and close contact once or twice daily, asking for temperature readings and other symptoms.

Once a nurse has established a rapport, they might switch to email or texting, or even the Whatsapp messaging program. Some of the Anchorage nurses have been speaking in Spanish with families, and they’ve also enlisted a Hmong translator.

But the work goes beyond collecting data on symptoms. Nurses have helped get food to people’s homes if they’re stuck in quarantine, and they can support people emotionally at a time when they’re isolated, vulnerable or afraid.

“Some people are scared. They’ve heard the horror stories,” said Hargrave, the state nurse supervisor. “A really important part of getting through this is having some social connection and support, and to not feel alone. And we’re happy to provide that when we can.”

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Alaska COVID-19 
At a Glance

(updated 12-3-21)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 10:21 a.m. Friday.

New cases as of Thursday: 312

Total statewide – 146,558

Total (cumulative) deaths – 853

Total (cumulative) hospitalizations – 3,117

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The COVID alert rate for Sitka is “high,” based on 13 new resident COVID cases in the past 7 days, a rate of 152.52 per 100,000 population. Case statistics are as of Thursday.

New cases in Sitka – 2

Cases in last 7 days – 13

Cumulative Sitka cases – 1,142

Cumulative non-resident cases – 102

Unique positive cumulative test results in Sitka, as of 11/26/21 – 1,266

Deceased (cumulative) – 5

The local case data are from the City of Sitka website.

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20 YEARS AGO
December 2001

Photo caption: Cathy Hanson shovels snow off the sidewalk in front of Russell’s today. What started as a few flakes Monday evening had mounted to an estimated half-foot by noon today. More was forecast but rain is possible Wednesday.

50 YEARS AGO
December 1971 

Several fish fatalities resulted Monday night when a car apparently went out of control, ran off Halibut Point Road and slammed into the rear of Sitka Petland Store. Vibrations shattered fish tanks, and several hundred dollars worth of tropical fish were casualties.

 

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