Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Natural disaster puts community at heightened risk of COVID-19 spread


December 10, 2020

Displaced residents gather at the American Legion for an evening update from Haines Borough officials. Ceri Godinez photo.

Officials are holding their breath while they wait to see what happens with COVID-19 in Haines in the wake of widespread flooding and landslides that have displaced at least 50 residents and brought a large number of volunteers and emergency workers into the community in the past week.

"I don't know how we're going to get out of this without active cases," Haines Borough interim manager Alekka Fullerton said. "It's front and center in my mind, every day. Every day that we still don't have any active cases in Haines, I'm doing a little happy dance."

Public Health nurse Elaine Hickey said the weather event has put the community at heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission for a number of reasons.

"The worry of being in crowded settings-evacuees sheltering together or gathering together-is definitely higher risk and concern," Hickey said. "We have more limited spacing to be able to isolate people."

She said a big worry is that emergency responders could get sick.

"If emergency responders are quarantining, fewer people will be able to respond and get repairs done. And the risk on the health clinic, itself, if multiple people start to become sick, could put a real strain on available resources," Hickey said.

State and local officials are asking Haines residents to continue to practice COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the wake of the natural disaster, with an emphasis on masking.

"The key is really wearing masks as well as diligent hand washing. When in a group situation, keep a six-foot distance. Try and maintain social bubbles in new groups as best you can. All the same protocols and things we ask all along but maybe with a little more diligence," Hickey said.

Fullerton said the borough plans to continue to fund free, asymptomatic testing in the community. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) free testing program had been scheduled to end on Dec. 19, but the organization ended the program early after the Dec. 2 landslide due to depleted resources.

"I can't not (fund testing)," Fullerton said. She said the plan is to continue to offer the free testing at the same time and place-in Haines on Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, and in Klukwan on Tuesdays, 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Funding will be covered with CARES Act funds through the end of the year, and then the borough will pick up the tab, Fullerton said.

It is unclear when the borough-funded testing will go into effect. Community members who showed up to receive tests on Saturday, Dec. 12 were turned away. On Saturday, Fullerton said the borough-funded testing is still a work in progress.

Volunteers and emergency workers have been asked to enter Haines with a negative coronavirus test, or receive a rapid test upon entry, to help prevent the virus from entering the community, which as of Wednesday morning, had no active cases.

"Working in partnership with the (Emergency Operations Center), those delegated as emergency responders received rapid tests at SEARHC," Bosak said. She said, as of Monday, the clinic had performed 46 tests for emergency responders.

The next week or so is when officials would expect to start seeing cases if the virus has entered the community in the wake of the Dec. 2 landslide.

"(Coronavirus) can take two weeks to incubate, and the average timeframe is a week, so if there is exposure or someone is positive asymptomatically, most likely around a week's time is when we might start seeing some cases," Hickey said.

She said the borough and state are working on plans for how to respond in the event of new positive cases. "Depending on who is positive, there are different scenarios. We're trying to work through those," she said.

COVID-19 cases around the state have skyrocketed in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the state reported 573 new cases. On Dec. 5, nearly 1,000 new cases were reported in a single day.

*This article has been updated to reflect changes in the SEARHC testing program.


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