COVID Panel Braces for Sitka’s First Case

Sentinel Staff Writer

Sitka’s city, emergency response and healthcare leaders continued working together on preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At its regular weekly meeting Wednesday afternoon at the fire hall, the Sitka’s Unified Command touched base on the community’s actions so far to continue its work to prevent and slow the spread of the virus, and prepare for the first cases here.

“The alligators closest to the boat right now, is just continuing to mitigate the spread,” said City Administrator John Leach, incident commander. “We still don’t have any cases here.”

But he said it’s important to keep getting out information on staying home – among other preventative measures – and anticipate the next curve ball that could hit the city, such as the arrival of seasonal workers.

A number of top city staff members, with new duties as assigned under the COVID response, were at the meeting, including fire hall personnel, school district co-assistant superintendent Phil Burdick, Public Health Nurse Denise Ewing, and Thor Christianson, who volunteered for the position as logistics section chief. (Christianson, resource manager of Southeast Region EMS, is a longtime fire department volunteer and a member of the City and Borough Assembly.)

All of those attending the meeting maintained the six-foot separation from each other recommended in guidelines.

City staff recorded the meeting, and provided a copy to the Sentinel for this story.

Leach summarized that the city and others on the unified command team are doing as much as they can to meet their five defined objectives: to mitigate spread, care for the sick, test and vaccinate, mitigate the financial impacts, and inform the public.

“With the state mandates, the resolution we put in place, and the travel restrictions, I’m not sure what other measures we can take other than put the public message out to stay indoors as much as possible, practice social distancing, cough into your elbow ...”

COVID-19 mandates imposed by the state restrict personal travel and require two weeks of quarantine after travel to Alaska, among other rules. Mandates that were to run through the end of March have been extended.

The city resolution the Assembly passed last week call on Sitkans to shelter in place and observe social distancing outside their homes. Non-critical businesses were ordered to close their doors to the public. The definition of “critical businesses” is broad and includes grocery and hardware stores and news media.

The newest cases of COVID-19 confirmed by the Department of Health and Social Services were in Anchorage (2), Fairbanks (3), North Pole (2), Juneau (1), Ketchikan (1) and Wasilla (1).

SEARHC said today that the newly confirmed Juneau case was a SEARHC patient.

“It’s the first in the consortium, so that escalates our plans and preparedness levels,” SEARHC communications director Maegan Bosak, said today. The test was taken at an alternative – drive-up – testing site.

Bosak provided an update today, and explained why SEARHC, which provides healthcare services throughout Southeast Alaska, has not given out information on the number of tests performed in Sitka:

“To date, SEARHC has performed 232 tests (region-wide), 172 are negative, 58 are pending, and one (1) is a confirmed SEARHC patient case in Juneau. Many of our communities are very small and there are privacy concerns. To protect patient and provider privacy, SEARHC will not be providing community specific information on negative testing. Negative testing has no impact on the safety of the community. Public health officials will alert the community when we are notified of a confirmed COVID-19 case.”

Leach deferred to SEARHC Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl, on the medical response (see related story, this page).

On the city’s response to the financial impact, Leach said the state and federal government have taken action to make funds available.

“We’ve had a slew of bills signed,” he said. “There are things we should look for as a city. ... We’re working to get a grant writer to help track those down and apply for everything we can apply for.”

Leach said the Assembly will also be taking on financial impact-related questions as well, including possible effects on the 2020-21 city budget.

(An ordinance to delay the start of higher seasonal electric rates will be on the agenda of tonight’s special Assembly meeting.)

Leach added today that City Financial and Administrative Director Jay Sweeney is the finance section chief of the city’s incident command, and has established a method for accounting for the city’s COVID-related expenses, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Leach said the city hopes to be eligible to recover all expenses associated with the pandemic, through legislation passed by Congress.

On the final objective, communicating with the public, Leach told others in the Unified Command that the city will continue those efforts to keep the public informed.

He mentioned the arrival of summertime workers as it relates to containing the virus. He added today that the city and state are working on a plan, including requirements for businesses to submit mitigation plans in connection with their seasonal workers.

Bruhl reported on SEARHC’S plans for each “tier” of response.

The current tier is “advanced readiness and planning.” The next tier is “active cases we’re caring for but not having any significant shortage.” And the third tier is active cases, and “overstretched resources.”

“Currently we are at the first tier, and we are continuing our efforts to enhance our training and preparedness and refine our planning and our processes,” Bruhl said.

He updated the group on testing supplies for the 27 communities served by SEARHC, and the broadening of testing criteria, in line with circumstances changing around the state and country and the desire to test more people.

“I can tell you it seems there is a wave of testing supplies we can see just over the horizon coming our way through the state and from the feds,” he said. “I’m expecting our testing capacity to increase.”

He said a major point of focus for SEARHC is “refinement of our processes around caring for patients safely,” including providing training in the use of Personal Protective Equipment.

“We’re also exploring – actively – the possibility of universal masking protocol,” for any staff working with patients, he added.

“We’re moving toward that – it’s really an issue of availability of our supplies,” Bruhl said, “but our supplies are quite strong. We have over a 60-day supply for most elements of PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Addressing “surge planning,” Bruhl said SEARHC is working with state emergency response leadership to learn what resources would be available if needed. That may include use of aircraft from the Alaska Air National Guard and civil air patrol. Bruhl mentioned the importance of aircraft in getting tests from communities like Sitka to labs elsewhere.

Bruhl also talked about “enhanced orientation” and “cross training” of staff in preparation of treating COVID cases, and the request SEARHC has made to the State Department of Education for using facilities at the state-operated Mt. Edgecumbe High School to house people needing to isolate after travel and healthcare providers, and for treating patients with “mild cases” of the viral COVID-19 infection.

“That request is in process, and staff is working on plans,” he said.




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At a Glance

(updated 9-28-22)

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 12:15 pm Wednesday, September 28.

New cases as of Wednesday: 546

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 282,928

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,329

Total (cumulative) hospitalizations – 3,955

Case Rate per 100,000 – 74.91

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

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "High.'' Case statistics are as of Wednesday.

Case Rate per 100,000 – 117.30

Cases in last 7 days – 10

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,358

Hospitalizations (to date) – 29

Deceased (cumulative) – 7

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.






September 2002

Photo caption: Bus drivers Derrell John and Sabrina Smith stand next to the new Community Ride buses at Crescent Harbor bus stop, which serves as a transfer point. The two public transportation buses will run two routes, one along Halibut Point Road, the other along Sawmill Creek Road. 


September 1972

 Photo caption: Bill Willis, the new owner-manager of the Dip’n’ Sip in the Triune Building serves up another ice cream cone for a pleased customer. Bill and his wife Dorothy purchased the business from JoAnne Harris. Along with the ice cream treats, sandwiches and soups will be added to the menu.