A Petersburg emergency operations center sign in middle harbor this winter (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Health officials are calling on Petersburg to maintain health precautions to get through the local COVID-19 outbreak. The community saw active case numbers drop over the weekend but local emergency and state officials say masking, social distancing and COVID testing are still needed to keep case numbers from expanding again.

Petersburg’s active case count dropped to 39 on Sunday, including three days in a row with no new cases reported. The borough’s incident commander Karl Hagerman reported on the status of the outbreak at Monday’s assembly meeting.

(I’m) Happy to report that we are seeming to be over the hump so to speak,” Hagerman said. “We topped out on active cases in Petersburg of 68, a few days ago and we have been seeing a steady drop in cases since that point. We had Friday, Saturday and Sunday had no new cases show up. However, this morning we did a report that there are a couple, two new cases so far today. So we’re not completely out of the woods by any means but the numbers do seem to be heading in the right direction and getting us out of this outbreak.”

Hagerman thanked the businesses that closed temporarily or changed to take out service during this outbreak. The community remains on red level or high risk status this week.

State health officials reported on Friday that between February 15 and March 5 there were a total of 92 cases identified in Petersburg. There were four COVID-related hospitalizations and no fatalities associated with these cases.

State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin described the outbreak on a radio show Friday.

“We have seen clusters in Petersburg that are associated with locations where people have gathered, including bars and restaurants and schools, day care centers and other businesses,” McLaughlin said. “About 44 percent of the cases in Petersburg have been associated with a bar or a restaurant and another 41 percent have been associated with a school or day care. And nearly ten percent of the total cases have had overlap between bars and restaurant clusters and the school and day care clusters.”

McLaughlin said transmission had been occurring in large and small gatherings, between family members and classmates as well as in a variety of public venues.

Public health nurse Erin Michael reinforced that message during Friday’s radio show.

“We really are encouraging people not to be gathering outside of their social bubbles and doing social events outside of your household,” Michael said. “We really are discouraging those type of gatherings right now because that’s where we’re seeing a lot of transmission and spreading of this infection. If people can avoid doing that and avoiding indoor gatherings altogether is best right now.”

School has been virtual online learning since February 23 and because of spring break won’t return to in class learning until March 22nd at the earliest. Classes for most of the school year have been mostly in person until this outbreak.

Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter testified to the House Health and Social Services Committee Thursday, March 4 about the outbreak occurring just after the end of the state’s disaster declaration.

“So exactly one week after Senate bill 56 expired, we experienced a COVID cliff, over 60 cases in seven days,” Hofstetter said. “And leading up to that expiration of Senate bill 56 we saw a noticeable behavioral difference within the community with increased public and private social activities in bars, restaurants, reduced masking indoors in public places and certainly bypassing testing at the airport. And of note we did have in place local mandates to support those. It just was not taken seriously.”

Senate bill 56 is the legislation proposed by Governor Dunleavy to extend the disaster declaration. Senators voted against moving out of committee in February. A version is also being heard this month in the House.

Hofstetter has also reported that the local community hospital has spent a quarter of a million dollars responding to this outbreak. He was uncertain of the impact the lapsed disaster declaration would have on funding for PMC’s response.

Free asymptomatic testing will continue at the airport Monday through Friday from 7:30-10 a.m. this week but it is expected eventually to move back to the medical center.

Roughly one third of the total population has received two shots of vaccine and the medical center has another vaccination clinic planned for this Friday March 12.

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