A recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Ketchikan has prompted health officials there to recommend tighter pandemic protocols in an attempt to prevent further spread of the virus.
While coronavirus transmission and case rates appear to be declining significantly in most of Alaska, some regions — including Southeast — are continuing to see flare-ups.
“Over the past week Ketchikan has seen an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases, in all settings and age groups,” said an update posted Tuesday by the borough’s Emergency Operations Center.
As a result, Ketchikan on Tuesday moved into the region’s highest COVID-19 alert level for the first time since the pandemic began. That means that unvaccinated residents specifically are being asked to pause non-essential travel outside the home, avoid gathering in large groups and discontinue visits with people living in congregate settings like nursing homes, according to Ketchikan emergency officials.
Other “strongly recommended” mitigation measures include mask wearing and a recommendation that restaurants, bars, gyms and businesses offering personal care services close, with an emphasis on telework in other business and government settings.
But, officials said, “each business, government entity, and organization must evaluate these recommendations against the anticipated impacts on operations and decide on appropriate actions to take,” adding that vaccination rates “may provide a significant mitigating factor.”
A local elementary and middle school were also both closed Wednesday due to cases that had been identified there.
The relatively sudden rise in cases within the small island community began in early May after a high school regional wrestling tournament in late April that has had been directly linked to at least 25 coronavirus cases in five Southeast communities.
There have been about 96 cases reported in Ketchikan just in May, said Sarah Hargrave, Southeast Alaska regional public nurse manager, on Wednesday. Covering less than two weeks, that figure represents more than a fifth of the 464 total cases that have been identified in Ketchikan since the pandemic began. One resident with COVID-19 has been hospitalized.
The vast majority of the newly identified cases have involved unvaccinated residents, Hargrave said.
“So the spread that we’re seeing in Ketchikan is specific clearly to those who have not yet been vaccinated,” she said.
Most of the spread in Ketchikan has recently been linked to family gatherings and “sports team events,” Hargrave added.
The Bill Weiss wrestling tournament, which attracts athletes from half a dozen schools around Southeast Alaska each year, was hosted by Ketchikan High School in April. Officials from Region 5, which represents Alaska School Activities Association schools in the area, issued a warning to Ketchikan High School recently for allegedly failing to test wrestlers or enforce mask wearing at the event — both of which were required under the region’s mitigation policies.
With 53% of all residents vaccinated against the coronavirus, Ketchikan’s overall vaccination rate is higher than the state average of 40%.
Still, about half of the city’s total population still has not received a shot, which mean that community spread is still possible, according to health officials. Herd immunity typically occurs once 70% to 80% of the population is vaccinated.
The state has stepped in to support the borough by helping with contact tracing and case investigation, Hargrave said. They’ve also helped plan a joint vaccination and testing clinic — to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Ketchikan High School — that’s especially focused on getting vaccinations to youths between 12 and 15 years old who just became eligible for the shot, Hargrave said.
“I would love to be done with COVID. I think we’d all love to be done with COVID. But we keep seeing communities that aren’t done with COVID,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, during a public information call on Wednesday.
“Our best way out is to get vaccinated, but we’re not quite there yet,” she added.