Haines suffers largest COVID outbreak yet


August 12, 2021

Kyle Clayton

SEARHC staff provided free, drive-through COVID-19 tests Wednesday to all residents. A line of waiting vehicles snaked from the clinic to Third Avenue, across Haines Highway and past Dusty Trails.

As of Thursday evening, 57 people tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in Haines since Aug. 6, including fair goers, a child and a borough staff member.

The borough hadn't registered a case since April. The number of active cases more than doubles what had been Haines' total number of cases before the surge.

"We got hit with it finally," said borough assembly member Gabe Thomas at a Tuesday assembly meeting. "I got tested and stayed home," said Thomas, who tested negative after feeling ill. "I'd urge the rest of the public to do the same."

As of Wednesday, no residents had been hospitalized, but health officials warn that the case count is still climbing, with new tests being processed each day. "We are asking that Haines citizens make temporary changes for these next two weeks," interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton said at the assembly meeting. Those requests include staying away from crowded places, wearing masks indoors and getting tested and isolating at home if symptomatic.

Fullerton said the borough received comments from community members who would like "for the entire borough to shut down and for there to be a mask mandate." While masks will be required for at least two weeks in borough facilities, there isn't a borough-wide mask mandate.

The borough administration building will be locked and closed to the public, but the borough will continue to operate. Borough meetings will be conducted on Zoom. The Haines Library will be closed for two weeks but will offer no-contact services like curbside pickup. And the Haines Pool's reopening was delayed indefinitely.

Borough officials suspect the Southeast Alaska State Fair, which was held in Haines July 29-August 1, was a spreader event. At least one person who attended the fair from Juneau tested positive, Fullerton said, referencing the first case that was announced on Aug. 6. "The patient self-disclosed that while they were here they attended the fair, stayed at the Captain's Choice and frequented both bars on Friday and Saturday nights," a Haines Borough emergency operations center (EOC) update stated.

Mayor Doug Olerud at the assembly meeting said that he knew holding the fair came with a risk but he "felt comfortable enough that people would follow established protocols to keep us from having a large-scale outbreak."

"That didn't happen," he said.

Southeast Alaska State Fair board president Spencer Douthit said the state fair's staff was "super conscious about modifying our events to make them low contact" and that "it's hard to say that the fair alone is why this is happening." Douthit noted the state fair's "unfortunate timing" with the spread of the new delta variant in Alaska.

The state fair was less crowded than in years past but had more than 700 attendees on its most crowded day. People danced close together at the main stage during the day and packed the town's bars at night. According to Alaska Marine Highway System records, 264 passengers traveled to Haines from Juneau and 343 passengers traveled from Haines to Juneau during the state fair.

Recent studies suggest the delta variant is more contagious than the original coronavirus strain. Due to delta's incursion nationwide, the CDC advised at the end of July that "the war has changed" against COVID. State data indicate that delta now accounts for nearly all new cases in Alaska. Test results from Haines are aggregrated statewide and its unclear what percentage of Haines cases are the delta variant.

Due to the outbreak, "our public health system is absolutely overwhelmed," Fullerton said. The borough is asking people who test positive to notify close contacts themselves because Fullerton said "there are not enough hours in the day" for the work demanded of the borough's sole public health nurse.

SEARHC held a drive-up testing clinic Wednesday afternoon for all residents, symptomatic or not, with no out-of-pocket costs. As of Wednesday, no plans for future drive-up clinics had been announced.

The outbreak caused the cancelation of several community events, the closure of businesses and renewed pleas for masking and distancing.

Christy Tengs, owner of the Bamboo Room Restaurant and Pioneer Bar, said she has been "really confused" about how to handle the situation but ultimately decided to close her bar and restaurant "until things turn around" out of caution for customers and employees with health concerns. "It's a tough, tough thing to figure out," Tengs said. "There are just so many variables."

Tengs said the EOC's public COVID updates, posted online twice daily this week, were "very helpful" as she decided how to proceed with her business.

Several other businesses also have made the tough call to close. "We don't know what the right decision is right now. And we don't know what the wrong one is either. Stress, angst and disappointment at an all time high," read a Tuesday post on the Facebook page of Sarah J's Espresso Shoppe, which will be closed until staff gets tested.

As of Wednesday, Chip Lende, owner of Lutak Lumber, said his business is open but employees all volunteered to wear masks for the first time in months. "We're encouraging all patrons to get masked up while in the store, if only for the next few weeks until we get through this spike," Lende said."We don't like masking any more than anyone else does."

Wednesday's ferry was canceled due to a crew shortage, said Alaska Marine Highway System spokesperson Sam Dapcevich. He said he wouldn't comment on whether the crew shortage was related to the outbreak.

"While I can't speak to reasons behind individual crewmembers availability, the reason for LeConte's cancelation today is we are short on crew and couldn't get replacements on the ship quickly enough," he said.

In a Tuesday letter posted on the Haines Borough School District's website, superintendent Roy Getchell ​​wrote that the return-to-school plan he'll propose to the school board on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. will include "layered mitigations," such as mask wearing and social distancing. "Priority 1 is student safety; 1a is continuity of learning; 2 is working toward normal," Getchell told the CVN. "We'll have to adjust accordingly." Getchell will reveal more details about his proposal this evening. He said the plan will be reevaluated each month.

The EOC reported on Monday that of 13 positive cases at the time "half" were in vaccinated people. Later updates didn't include the vaccination status of individuals who tested positive. "They have not provided that information since they became overwhelmed," Fullerton told the CVN.

Since Feb. 1, vaccinated people have accounted for 8.6% of Alaska's COVID cases. While vaccine breakthrough cases appear to be more common with the delta variant, current data show that vaccination significantly lowers risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Kyle Clayton

SEARHC is offering tests for symptomatic people at the Haines Health Center Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Testing is available for asymptomatic people Monday through Friday 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Testing for crossing the Canada border is available Monday through Friday 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All testing is by appointment. Contact the clinic at 766-6300 option 2 to schedule a test.

Asymptomatic Klukwan residents can get tested at Klukwan Health Center drop-in clinics Tuesday and Thursday 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

A group of local volunteers is offering a service called Chilkat Valley Support Chain to assist homebound or quarantining residents with groceries, mail or other daily errands. You can sign up to volunteer or if you would like assistance call 888-487-1021.

*This story has been updated as new information became available.


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