Alaska doesn’t have any confirmed cases of the covid-19 coronavirus yet, but there is a lot of planning going on around the possibility that the flu-like illness will arrive here.
Cruise tourism may see some fallout, both from the recent headlines about the infection on board the Grand Princess in San Francisco, and advice this weekend from Dr. Anthoni Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, to older Americans (and to those with underlying conditions) to “Just don’t get on a cruise ship.”
In Sitka, it’s hard to predict how the covid-19 cards will fall. Here’s a look at what local officials and organizations are saying about it: Last week (3-4-20), Sitka Economic Development Association Garry White addressed the Chamber of Commerce, and said Sitka was economically vulnerable.
“I’m tracking it personally,” White said. “I’m trying to figure out how much of this is overblown or how much of it’s really real. It seems like it’s real. It could have a huge impact to our tourism industry this summer. Our fishing industry is already — one of the reasons I’ve heard that the herring fishery isn’t going on is because most of the herring goes to China to get processed — there’s no one to do it. So, it’s definitely an issue. It’s going to be standby and figure out what to do with it — if we can do anything.”
At that same chamber meeting, Laurie Booyse, the director of Visit Sitka, said that cruise ships were bending over backwards to stop the spread of not just covid-19 — but all infections that easily spread on ships.
“Something that people should be very aware of is that the cruise lines have very strict guidelines for any type of outbreak,” said Booyse. “So oftentimes traveling on a cruise ship is essentially one of the safest way to travel because they have very stringent precautions that they take to keep their employees on the ships — as well as their visitors — safe. So, before people are even getting on the ships and heading our direction, they’ve already been put through a process to make sure that they are healthy. Also, our airline partners are working diligently on ways to keep their customers and passengers as safe as possible. In the travel industry, people are very aware, really tracking on this. As a community, the best thing we can do is just not overreact, and keep ourselves safe. Do those things that you know you should be doing. Washing your hands and covering your mouth when you sneeze, and just take your best precautions. And we’ll be doing our best throughout the summer to keep our community and visitors as safe as possible in the tourism industry.”
Seafood processing brings in dozens of seasonal workers to Sitka from around the world. The absence of the commercial Sac Roe Herring fishery this year is an economic hit, but according to Al Stevens, with Silver Bay Seafoods, the loss of the fishery could be a plus for the town’s health.
“The good news for us is that there’s no herring season,” Stevens said. “Since there’s no herring season, there’s no personnel. And we won’t expect our personnel to start showing up until about the middle of May. However, we are taking it seriously. We had Public Health — Denise — out last week to do a flu clinic for the skeleton crew that we do have, which is about 15 people. I have been in contact with Chief Miller and Captain Janik (EMS) to come up with a plan for ourselves to put a quarantine together to deal with personnel who do get sick, instead of just rushing them to the hospital, and inundating the hospital. So, just from our standpoint, I — because we do bring in people from other countries — we are taking it seriously.”
The covid-19 infection resembles a bad cold or mild flu in most people — especially the young. If schools were to close in Sitka, it likely would be to control the spread of the disease to the old, and to other more vulnerable populations.
Co-assistant superintendent Phil Burdick told a meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee last Friday (3-5-20), that education would not stop if the schools closed.
“If there is a need for us to close schools down, we have the ability to do some of our learning online through our learning management systems at the secondary level,” Burdick said. “At the elementary level, we have the ability to work with REACH Homeschool, they have lots of resources for homeschooling. So we will be monitoring the situation — we do take it seriously, and I do understand the complexity — and it may not look like the robust education that you’re used to getting from the Sitka School District, but it will be something.”
Likewise, Janelle Vanasse, superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School, explained that her school already was effectively a closed campus. She said Sitkans will not see her students spending time in town in the event the illness arrives. Her main decisions will involve whether or not to send students home, if the infection is active in Sitka at the end of the academic year.
The health care system in Sitka has been tracking covid-19 since it emerged in China in December — and actively planning for a pandemic for over a month. Also speaking to the Local Emergency Planning Committee last Friday, Sitka EMS captain Rob Janik said home quarantine for all but the most severe cases is a key part of the plan.
“We’ve been in planning mode for approximately a month now, and have implemented special protocols for handling of suspected infectious disease cases,” said Janik. “We’re not just limited to covid-19, of course because as we all know seasonal flu is a big deal — a lot of people are infected and a lot of people die from seasonal flu — and we want to reduce that risk an any other. So we’re taking an all-hazards approach rather than a specific approach. It is possible that we will not transport all infectious disease cases to the hospital. If we can keep them at home and meet their health care needs, that’s ideal, so as to not overwhelm the system. We do have some additional equipment laid in, depending on the scope of this outbreak, that may or may not be sufficient. Right now you can expect that if somebody dials 9-1-1 or calls the firehall directly they’ll ask you some screening questions about infectious disease. We’ll send a response out with minimal staffing, to not expose any more people than necessary. They will wear the appropriate personal protective equipment, perform an assessment, make contact with a physician, and then dispose the case in consultation with physician-level advice.”
Fire Chief Dave Miller told the LEPC meeting that all the information he was tracking on the covid-19 virus was available online to the public at the Centers for Disease Control.