The latest surge in COVID-19 cases has put Sitka at the front of the pack in Southeast, with 60 new infections in the last week alone.
Emergency officials say the surge is driven by residents who refuse vaccination, even in the face of the more dangerous Delta variant of the virus.
Note: The Sitka Emergency Operations Center has recommended a return to wearing face coverings in public places, regardless of your vaccination status. The City of Sitka on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, reinstated a masking requirement in municipal buildings, if 6 feet of social distance can not be maintained.
You can find links to information about how to get vaccinated in Sitka at the KCAW Coronavirus Information Hub.
Update, 4:00 p.m., 7-15-21:
Sitka has added 14 new cases this afteroon, pushing the total active case count to 104, according to the city’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
Sitka is putting up numbers that previously haven’t been seen during the pandemic: A total of 6 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in 2021, just last week, 15 people were admitted to the Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center. There have been 474 total cases of COVID-19 during the entire pandemic, 60 of them just last week.
Dr. Elliot Bruhl, chief medical officer for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, says this reflects the reality of the Delta variant, combined with groups of people who are still highly susceptible because they choose to remain unvaccinated.
Bruhl addressed the Sitka Assembly on July 13.
“Really what’s going on here is an issue of people ending up in the hospital who are unvaccinated,” he said. “And as we look at this, this growth in cases here in the last 12 days or so, it’s really been centered in three clusters, or groups, of people who have chosen not to get vaccinated and also chosen to associate closely with one another. And, and so as we’re doing the tracking of the cases, that’s what we’re seeing.”
The Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center has 25 acute care beds. Bruhl said that SEARHC was “bumping up against capacity” during the current surge, but the organization’s contingency planning at the beginning of the pandemic was proving effective.
Bruhl was joined by Sitka’s incident commander, Fire Chief Craig Warren, who — although he didn’t specify which “groups” were resisting vaccination — reminded everyone that the decision to vaccinate or not had implications far beyond the individual.
“When personal choice starts to have consequences to the community, the risks are enormous,” said Warren. “It affects our children and the school’s ability to reopen, the daycares, and keeping the parents at work. It affects hospital capacity, businesses, and Sitka’s economy. We’ve signed cruise ship agreements where we’ve made that industry reach vaccination safety levels the city has not been able to reach.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported last week that the Delta variant was now the prevalent strain of the coronavirus in Alaska. Delta is more highly communicable than earlier strains, and the outcomes can be more serious. Warren said residents needed to remain vigilant.
“This disease has changed,” said Warren, “and we’re not fighting the same disease we were up against last year.”
Nevertheless, officials say a full course of vaccination remains effective against even the Delta variant. Warren said that 21 of the 87 COVID cases reported in Sitka since June were among vaccinated individuals — and most of those were asymptomatic. Only one vaccinated patient was hospitalized for additional treatment.
Sitka’s surge of 67 active cases far outstrips any other community in Southeast at the moment. Juneau is reporting 15 active cases, Ketchikan 8, Petersburg 9, and Wrangell 0. Sitka’s vaccination rate, however, is fairly high with 66-percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated.