COVID-19 case prompts masking policy and business closures
July 30, 2020
The Haines Borough imposed a mandatory masking policy in its facilities and several businesses voluntarily closed after a 20-something male resident tested positive for COVID-19 on July 24.
“He is currently asymptomatic and has agreed to quarantine,” the borough’s emergency operations center (EOC) said in a press release Friday.
The patient subsequently tested negative for the disease, but public health nurse April Rezendes said this doesn’t invalidate the initial result.
“We are finding that people test positive, and they may test negative later. We go with the positive. The way the tests work, we’re more likely to have a false negative than a false positive,” Rezendes said.
Interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton said she implemented the masking requirement in borough facilities to try to curb the disease’s spread. “I’m worried it’s going to get away from us,” she said.
This is not the first time someone has tested positive in the Haines Borough, but Fullerton said this case is different because the patient “has been very actively out and about.” As a result, the patient has a much longer list of “close contacts,” defined as anyone who came within six feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or longer, up to two days before the onset of symptoms or, for the asymptomatic, two days before a positive test.
The new case comes at a time when Alaska’s contact tracing capacity is being overwhelmed by a surge in positive tests. COVID-19 cases in the state have reached a point where individuals who test positive are being asked to reach out to close contacts on their own, instead of public health officials performing the task. Although, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is still notifying high-risk individuals if they are a close contact of a COVID-19 case.
Rezendes said the department is providing information about symptoms, testing and quarantining to COVID-19 patients so they can pass it on to close contacts. Close contacts with additional questions can call the Juneau Public Health Center at 465-3353.
In a press release on Monday, the EOC encouraged anyone who believes they fit the definition of close contact to self-quarantine and seek testing.
The borough’s mask mandate applies to all people entering borough facilities including the harbor, library, school and borough administration building. Borough employees who work alone do not need to wear masks unless someone enters their workspace. The state has imposed a similar mandate for state facilities.
At present, there is no masking requirement for businesses in Haines. The decision to mandate masks in private businesses is a matter for the assembly to consider, Fullerton said. Discussion of a communitywide mask mandate is scheduled to take place July 30 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom during an EOC-hosted townhall.
Several businesses that serve as gathering spaces have elected to close in the wake of the July 24 case as a precautionary measure. These include the Fogcutter Bar, American Legion, Port Chilkoot Distillery and Pioneer Bar.
“Staff members called Thursday to let me know they had been in contact with (the patient) recently outside (the Pioneer Bar). So we closed and they are getting tested,” owner Christy Tengs Fowler said. “No idea when we will reopen.”
The Haines Borough and the state continue to encourage people to wear a face covering, maintain good hygiene practices, keep social circles small, stay six feet from others whenever possible and remain home if sick.
Rezendes said these practices will help ensure close contact lists are short for those who test positive. Because asymptomatic individuals routinely test positive for the virus,” we just encourage everybody to always act like you could be infected,” she said.
Testing for those without symptoms is available for free on Saturdays and Sundays at the Haines clinic between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The weekend after the positive case was announced, 141 people took advantage of the program, a substantial increase from the 92 who got tested the weekend before.