City administrator John Leach had only been on the job for a few weeks when he found himself declaring a local state of emergency in response to open up the doors for federal disaster relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leach says he and his team are prepared, and advises that Sitkans follow the state and local safety recommendations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (KCAW/Rose)

The first time most Sitkans heard their new city administrator’s voice may have been the afternoon of Sunday, March 15. Anyone who was signed up for the city’s code-red emergency messaging service on that day received a pre-recorded phone call from John Leach.

Just a few weeks into the job, Leach had declared a local disaster emergency. Days earlier, he guided the Sitka Assembly in a special meeting on the community’s COVID-19 response, and established a local emergency operations center and a unified command post.  

Given his former life as a commander in the US Coast Guard, the steps were familiar. 

“This type of operation wasn’t much of a surprise, even though this coronavirus is something somewhat new, the process that we’re going through wasn’t the first time I’ve had to address something like this.” he says.

If and when there’s a confirmed positive case of the novel coronavirus in Sitka, Leach says he and his team are prepared. 

“I’ve been through the Ebola virus scare, I’ve been through SARS and MERS and some of the other ones that have popped up and have addressed these things at the federal level,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of training with FEMA and the incident command structure, as have many of our local emergency managers. So I think plugging into that system was pretty straightforward.” 

Leach meets with SEARHC officials regularly, and at the Fire Hall, where they’ve established an Emergency Operations Center. That team gets together daily. 

“[We meet] every morning, just to talk about any developments that happened overnight, and kind of put together a task list of things we need to do for the day, or measures that we can take to make everybody safer,” he says.

A confirmed case of COVID-19 in Sitka will not alter the community’s response plans much.  Leach says we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and follow directives from the state.

“I think everybody just needs to continue with the measures we’ve laid out already along with the state,” he says. “We are constantly talking with the state and the state emergency operations center. We’re reaching out to other communities that do have cases that have popped up already. We’re talking to them to see how they’re handling those scenarios. With us and SEARHC working together, I think we’ve got a pretty good plan to be able to isolate any personnel in a self-quarantine in their home.” 

Overall, he’s feeling positive about Sitka’s response so far. He thinks we’re ahead of the curve. 

“It’s very encouraging to see businesses cooperating and kind of controlling the number of people going in the door. At the same time, our grocery stores setting aside specific hours for at-risk personnel to shop. It shows that people here care and they’re looking out for each other,” he says. “So I would just ask that we continue that community effort to stop this.” 

Leach says Sitkans can go to the city website to see the most up-to-date information related to the city’s response to COVID-19.