As virus spreads, Haines stays on high alert
August 26, 2021
With 20 active COVID-19 cases in the Haines Borough, including four new cases on Tuesday and six over the weekend, officials are warning residents to remain vigilant and help the community stifle the surge.
“We were hoping that we (would) have seen the worst of the outbreak,” interim borough manager Alekka Fullerton said at a Tuesday assembly meeting. “Unfortunately that does not seem to be true.” Fullerton said the four cases on Tuesday had untraceable sources, signaling that “we still have significant community transmission.”
While Haines hasn’t recorded a hospitalization or death from the virus, the borough’s public health system has been “really overwhelmed,” Fullerton said.
SEARHC has been conducting about 40 to 60 COVID tests each day. Early in the outbreak, seven SEARHC staff members came from Juneau and Wrangell to relieve employees in Haines, who had been working 12 to 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week, according to Haines clinic administrator Stephanie Pattison. Two SEARHC employees from Sitka are currently in Haines to help with testing.
Over the course of the outbreak, the Haines Health Center has administered 22 infusions of monoclonal antibody therapies to people who tested positive for COVID and qualify for the treatment, Pattison said. The treatment, which can help prevent hospitalization or death, is available for those at high risk or deemed a suitable candidate by a healthcare provider, and it works best within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms. “I truly believe it’s been successful,” Pattison said.
Pattison also said she has noticed that “symptoms are not nearly as severe (for vaccinated people) or last as long for those who are unvaccinated.”
“It’s not too late to get your COVID vaccine,” Pattison said. Those who wish to be vaccinated can call the clinic at 766-6300 to register.
Health officials are asking that residents who test positive for COVID reach out to anyone they came into close contact with two days prior to the onset of symptoms or a positive test because SEARHC doesn’t have the staffing or time to trace every case.
State public health nurse Elaine Hickey wrote in an email to the CVN last week that her daily duties during the outbreak have involved “case investigations, outreach calls, providing education regarding quarantine/isolation and testing, tracking data, working with community partners on mitigation strategies, and participating in Emergency Operations Center (EOC) meetings.”
“The last few weeks have been tough, and I suspect it’s only going to get harder over the fall and winter,” Hickey wrote. “But my community partners like SEARHC and the Haines EOC have been wonderful to work with and are doing an incredible job.”
The statewide case count is still climbing, as it has since mid-June, with health officials attributing the rise in part to the highly contagious delta variant first identified in Alaska in May. The state reported 13 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday, and 593 new cases. As of Monday, 121 people in the state were hospitalized with COVID-19. That’s 13% of Alaska’s total hospitalized population.
Other Southeast Alaska communities are also dealing with outbreaks. Sitka officials reported 156 active COVID-19 cases as of Sunday evening, including 43 new cases and five hospitalizations over the weekend. Nearly half of the weekend patients were in their 20s and 30s, according to Sitka’s COVID-19 website.
Officials said the surge is driven by residents who refuse vaccination, “even in the face of the more dangerous delta variant of the virus that is spreading across Alaska.”
The City and Borough of Sitka on July 14 reinstated a masking requirement in municipal buildings, if six feet of social distance cannot be maintained. “Mask up, whether you are vaccinated or not,” said Craig Warren, the emergency operations center incident commander.
Haines similarly will require masks in the borough administration building when it reopens. The visitors center will reopen to window traffic only.
The borough school district also is requiring masks among students and staff. School started in-person this week.
The borough EOC asked Southeast Conference, whose annual meeting is planned for Haines Sept. 14-16, to have participants tested within 48 hours of coming to Haines or to be vaccinated. “We are having an ongoing conversation about what that looks like and what triggers might happen in terms of changing to a virtual platform. We are hoping that we will not have to do that,” Fullerton said at the Tuesday meeting.
A recent report prepared for the state said only 4.2% of Alaska’s COVID-19 cases between February and June were among people who were fully vaccinated, while just 1% of Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations during that time involved fully vaccinated individuals.
As public health officials continue to emphasize the need for people to get vaccinated — to protect themselves and anyone around them — more employers are requiring vaccinations of their employees.
Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization last week joined the growing list of employers. Leadership at the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska met last Friday and decided to require vaccinations, according to Juneau public radio station KTOO.
The Central Council joins the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and other employers that have adopted similar vaccination policies in recent weeks.
The Tlingit & Haida executive council will also require delegates who attend the September tribal assembly in-person meeting to be vaccinated.
On Monday the FDA fully authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine in people 16 or older. Other vaccines, like Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s, continue to be available under the FDA’s emergency use authorization.
The Wrangell Sentinel’s Larry Persily contributed to this report.