Attendees at the Sitka LEPC meeting were greeted by giant screens showing the Johns Hopkins “Covid-19 Dashboard.”

Authorities in Sitka are braced for the inevitable arrival of the covid-19 virus.

Members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee held a public meeting on Friday afternoon (3-6-20) to share information about the disease.

Note: SEARHC has launched a website with updated information for the public about the covid-19 coronavirus. You can find a link on our website, There’s also a hotline at 966-8799 you can call during business hours, and the Nurse Advice Line after hours at 800.613.0560.

Dr. Elliot Bruhl, chief medical officer for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, told the group that Sitka wouldn’t escape the infection.

“I believe it’s just a matter of time until we’re going to be dealing with this,” Bruhl said. “In the meantime, what we’re doing is spending our efforts very vigorously to make sure that all of our processes are in place so that our staff are safe, and that we can take good quality care of patients.”

Covid-19 is one of over 70 identified “coronaviruses.” It emerged last year in Wuhan, an enormous city in mainland China, and in many ways resembles ordinary influenza. But for certain populations — people with autoimmune diseases, diabetes, or other chronic conditions (even pregnancy) — the new virus has proven to be more dangerous than influenza. And there’s no “cure” other than prevention. 

Mt. Edgecumbe High School superintendent Janelle Vanasse addresses the LEPC meeting about the school’s plans to manage covid-19. She described a multi-stage plan, including prevention education, and a scaled-up cleaning regimen. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Joining Bruhl were representatives from Emergency Medical Services, the Public Health Service, Mt. Edgecumbe and Sitka High schools, Silver Bay Seafoods, and the Coast Guard. The message was the same: All the organizations had scaled up their awareness of the illness, and were coordinating response plans to deal with it in proportion to the threat.

City-wide quarantines or travel bans are not part of the strategy at this point.

Sitka administrator John Leach said it was important for local officials to have a “continuity of operations plan” to maintain municipal services, and to “stay ahead of the panic.”

“So we say… jump right in and close schools to get ahead of it. Where do the kids go?” Leach asked. “The kids stay home. If the kids stay home, who takes care of the kids? If you’re at home taking care of the kids, are you at work? If you’re not at work, you’re not making any money. If you’re not making any money, how do you pay to keep the lights on? Which people do we send to work, how do we get ahead of this in a reasonable manner? Like I said — our continuity of operations plan — what do we do to stay ahead of this with reasonable triggers to follow?”

The most obvious at-risk populations in Sitka are residents of the Pioneer Home and Sitka Long-Term care. Both those facilities have taken measures to limit access to patients while covid-19 runs its course. Cruise ships also are known for occasional viral outbreaks. Leach had met earlier in the day with representatives from cruise lines, and he believed the hazard from ships was low.

Leach said cruise lines couldn’t risk the economic consequences of a covid-19 infection on one of their ships, so they were developing strict screening requirements before embarking passengers.

The messaging at the meeting was similar to much of what is being heard on national media recently: Wash hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, and be conscientious about staying home when you’re ill. If you haven’t had a flu shot this season, it’s not too late, and although it won’t prevent covid-19, it may help boost your immune system. If you belong to one of the at-risk populations, you should get in touch with your medical provider anytime you become ill.

Sitka fire chief Dave Miller organized the unusual open meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee after seeing news reports of consumers clearing the shelves in lower-48 box stores. He said that in Sitka, having a 14-day emergency supply at home had long been the Committee’s recommendation — even before covid-19 emerged.

Nevertheless, he counseled calm.

“Don’t panic. We’re not at that point yet. When we get to that point, I’ll tell you, then you can panic along with me. But we’re not there yet,” said Miller, who added that he would respond to help anyone who called for help — even after he retired later this spring.

Miller said that he would call a meeting of the LEPC every week until the threat of the covid-19 virus had passed.