COVID outbreak hits Wrangell, rest of Southeast

Statewide COVID-19 case counts continued climbing early this week, with Southeast communities some of the hardest hit — including Wrangell, with 11 new cases reported Monday and Tuesday.

Because of the high case counts, state public health officials are unable to keep up with the contract tracing workload, and anyone who has been or may have been in close contact with an infected person should quarantine and get tested for COVID as soon as possible, Wrangell borough officials said Tuesday evening.

“Whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, please consider wearing a mask” when indoors other than at home, the borough said.

Wrangell has reported 22 cases in the past two weeks.

Elsewhere in Southeast, Haines reported 75 cases between Aug. 6 and 16, after not having any reported cases since April.

“We got hit with it finally,” Assemblymember Gabe Thomas said at the Aug. 10 borough assembly meeting.

The number of new cases has more than doubled the community’s total count since the pandemic tally started last March.

Skagway also was hit by a rash of new cases, with about 20 reported in two weeks through Aug. 16, a big increase from the 33 infections reported over the previous 16 months. “There is concern for community spread,” the borough reported Monday.

Ketchikan had 98 active cases as of Monday. Of those, 17 were new infections reported Monday, along with two COVID-related resident deaths posted to the community virus data dashboard on Monday. Officials have reported five deaths in the past seven days.

Statewide, public health officials reported 1,499 new cases for Saturday through Tuesday, with 132 people in Alaska hospitals as of Tuesday morning — approaching the peak number of hospitalizations from last December.

State officials say the surge in cases is driven almost entirely by the Delta Coronavirus variant.

Skagway’s latest cases were traced to community spread and community travel, not cruise ships, which first began arriving in town on June 11.

The community’s only full-service grocery store closed last week after three employees tested positive for COVID. The store reopened on Saturday for limited hours. Face masks were required last week for all store employees and customers, according to a company official.

Masks also were required in all municipal buildings and many private businesses in Skagway.

After a restaurant employee tested positive at the end of July, a line four blocks long stretched out from the free testing site in Skagway.

The mayor last week recommended routine COVID-19 testing for anyone whose employment brings them into contact with the public, especially as large cruise ships are scheduled to call on Skagway for a couple more months.

In Haines, borough officials suspect the Southeast Alaska State Fair, which ran July 29 to Aug. 1, was a spreader event.

Mayor Doug Olerud told the assembly 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,” Olerud said.

Southeast Alaska State Fair board president Spencer Douthit noted the fair’s “unfortunate timing” with the spread of the 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. Several hundred people arrived in Haines by ferry during the fair.

The borough administration building and library were closed to the public last week.

“Our public health system is absolutely overwhelmed,” interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton told the assembly. The borough is asking people who test positive to notify close contacts themselves because “there are not enough hours in the day” for the borough’s sole public health nurse to make the calls, Fullerton said.

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

As of Aug. 11, Chip Lende, owner of Lutak Lumber, said his business was 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.”

The Chilkat Valley News in Haines and Skagway News contributed to this report.


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