COVID-19 case count reaches more than 90
45 cases active as of Thursday evening
August 19, 2021
The Haines Borough had 51 active COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday. While some residents reported painful symptoms, there have been no hospitalizations or deaths in the borough since the outbreak started two weeks ago, according to local officials.
As cases surged in Haines last week, events were canceled; businesses closed; residents hunkered down; and the borough’s public health system was flooded with demand for testing and tracing.
“With the current case rate our contact tracing capabilities are becoming stretched very thin,” wrote state public health nurse Elaine Hickey, in an email to the CVN.
Statewide hospital beds are filling as COVID rates have surged by 792% since July 1. Anchorage ICUs are at capacity, according to a recent Anchorage Daily News report. Although Haines hasn’t seen a severe case yet, interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton said “there are people who are going to get sicker this week.”
Overall, Haines’ cases have been fairly evenly spread among age groups, with the most, 18, occurring in people in their 30s. Ten residents under 20 years old have tested positive, as have ten over 70.
Hickey confirmed the first exposures to COVID-19 were linked to the state fair weekend, including “attendance at the Fair, at bars and concerts, etc.”
Vaccination numbers linked to positive cases haven’t been released, but Hickey wrote that “vaccine breakthrough rates in Haines are similar to vaccine breakthrough rates across Alaska and the nation.” A recent New York Times investigation found that “breakthrough infections in vaccinated people accounted for at least one in five newly diagnosed cases” in six states studied since the takeover of the more transmissible delta variant.
“But the evidence is clear that the vast majority of severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths are in unvaccinated individuals,” Hickey wrote, adding that “vaccines are key to preventing further variants of the COVID-19 virus.”
This week the CDC recommended a third dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines eight months after receiving a second dose. Booster shots could become widely available as early as Sept. 20, the CDC said. Last week the FDA authorized third doses for immuno-compromised people.
Haines resident Stoli Lynch, 30, who tested positive for COVID last week, described several days of intense burning in her sinuses, a pounding headache, loss of smell and taste and a general sense of heaviness and fatigue. “Every day I would wish that I would snap out of it,” Lynch said.
Having spent three days in bed with a fever and aches, she said one of the toughest things about the illness was not having “the mental and physical energy present to be taking care of my family.”
Both of Lynch’s daughters, ages 7 and 9, tested positive, but one had only a stuffy nose, and the other was asymptomatic. Lynch’s husband, Nels, tested negative.
In a Facebook post last Thursday, Lynch, who was vaccinated, recounted her illness’ emotional toll. “We probably had COVID for at least 3 or 4 days before we tested… who did I spread it to? Do I not hold my two-year-old son? Am I making the right choices? My mind was just racing with all these questions frequently,” she wrote. Lynch, who said she most likely contracted COVID at the fair, said that SEARHC has been “strongly encouraging you to do your own contact tracing” because they’ve been backed up with cases.
Lynch said she’s grateful that people rallied to help her and her family during quarantine. “The community outreach is just amazing,” Lynch said. But she added that “it’s totally a mental struggle even with the support.”
Haines residents Teslin Podsiki and Josh Whitby canceled their public wedding celebration a second time, after postponing it from last summer. They put an ad in the newspaper a couple weeks ago inviting the community to attend this weekend, but now they will have only a small ceremony with family. “I never expected COVID to last this long, where we’d cancel again,” said Teri Bastable-Podsiki, Teslin’s mother. “We thought yeah, absolutely there won’t be a problem at all.”
But Bastable-Podsiki said the risk wasn’t worth it. Holding an event where someone became ill “would really hurt our hearts,” she said, adding that “everyone’s been really understanding.”
Christy Tengs, owner of Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room Restaurant, who closed her businesses more than a week ago due to the outbreak, said she isn’t sure when to reopen. “I want to have work for our employees,” Tengs said, but she noted that the situation has been “really hard to navigate.” With the active case count still high in town, she’s looking for guidance.
Mike Ward said he made the decision to close the Harbor Bar and Lighthouse Restaurant for a few days earlier this week out of “an abundance of caution” after an employee had close contact with someone who tested positive.
“For the most part the people that work for us want to be open. They want to go to work,” Ward said. The bar and restaurant reopened on Wednesday with more proactive signage and a new sneeze guard.
Ward traveled to Wrangell last week where he said “the town is bustling” and that there is a “much different environment” in Haines. “We’ve been in a reactive mode,” he said. “You feel like you’re swimming upriver here.”
Ward said his employees had to wait for test results because rapid tests weren’t available for asymptomatic people. Unlike in other Alaskan municipalities, testing in Haines is by appointment only, and tests for asymptomatic people can take several days for results.
When asked why there is a testing disparity across Alaska at a meeting on Wednesday, state health officials said all communities have been provided with federal dollars to administer testing but have chosen to use that money in different ways.
“If a community desires additional help with testing, certainly we would be available to support that,” state public health official Sarah Hargrave said at the meeting.
Fullerton said the state helped Haines set up testing for first responders, the school district and borough officials but that the borough can’t acquire state resources for SEARHC, a private entity. Fullerton said she hopes the borough’s independent testing would “lighten the burden” on SEARHC. SEARHC representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment before press time.
The borough pool will reopen on Monday, and the Haines Borough School District Board is set to meet Wednesday night, before presstime, to discuss whether it should open Aug. 24. But the borough administration building will remain closed for the time being. “I want to see what the risk level is next week,” Fullerton said. The borough’s current level of community transmission is “high,” according to the CDC.
Testing for symptomatic patients is available by appointment at the Haines Health Clinic (call 766-6300) Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
For asymptomatic people: Monday through Friday, 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Testing for Canada border crossing: Monday through Friday, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sundays 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
COVID vaccination clinics will continue to be offered each week.