Juneau’s overall COVID-19 vaccination rate is ticking up, and new case numbers are moving down. The combination has city officials looking at the data with an eye on the city’s mitigation plans and considering if it’s time to make changes.
According to Robert Barr, deputy city manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, an announcement about citywide mitigation level changes could come as early as next week.
“By and large numbers are looking good,” Barr said in a Friday morning interview with the Empire. “Broadly, when I look at the data locally and compare it to other communities in and outside of Alaska, it’s clear that our willingness to get vaccinated and practice mitigation strategies, such as masking, has really aided our experience.”
On Friday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported five new COVID-19 cases in Juneau. Those five cases were identified on Nov. 11 and 12. There are currently four people with COVID-19 hospitalized at Bartlett Regional Hospital. That’s a steep decline from the numbers seen earlier this fall when officials routinely reported daily caseloads hovering near 100.
Statewide, DHSS reported 879 new people identified with COVID-19. Earlier this week, state officials reported 53 COVID-19 related deaths, bringing the state’s total deaths to 764. The state discovered deaths — 50 residents and three nonresidents — through a process of certificate review, city officials said.
Climbing vaccination numbers
Barr said the city’s overall vaccination rate popped above 70%, which he sees as an important milestone.“We’ve been hoping to achieve that for quite some time. At 70% fully vaccinated, that’s exciting,” he said.
The city’s vaccine-eligible population grew last week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 through 12. Previously, the vaccine had only been OK’d for people 12 and older.
Last week, CBJ hosted five pediatric vaccine clinics in conjunction with the Juneau School District. Barr said that 648 children were vaccinated during the first week, representing about 25% of the city’s eligible children.
As a result of the clinics, about 75% of Juneau’s eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose. Barr said the number could be higher as the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium also offered pediatric vaccines this week.
In a phone call late Friday, Courtney Taber, nursing manager for Juneau’s SEARHC clinic, said that since Nov. 4, staff members have distributed about 200 kid vaccines. She said she expects to vaccinate about 60 more kids at clinics this weekend.
Despite a few protesters outside two of the vaccine sites, Barr said he was satisfied with the turnout at the clinics and heard positive feedback from parents.
“Our expectations were high. We wanted to make sure we had enough vaccine on hand in case we had a turn out twice that amount,” he said.
Barr said that Juneau’s vaccine uptake for young kids is “excellent” compared to other communities in Alaska and across the country, where uptake estimates range from 3% to 10%.
Barr said Juneau’s Public Health Clinic will offer vaccine clinics every Tuesday for the rest of November.
Changing mitigation measures
Often called the “mask mandate,” the mitigation measures are a collection of strategies that vary based on factors such as the level of viral spread, hospital capacity locally and regionally, and public health’s ability to conduct contract tracing. Public masking is a measure in place during times of high community spread.
The current community risk level is “Level 3-High,” a level that calls for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks inside public places. As the community risk level changes, the corresponding mitigation measures adjust.
The community risk level has not changed since the City’s Assembly’s late September unanimous vote to extend the mitigation plans until March 1, 2022, rather than letting them expire on Oct. 31.
Barr said that finding the right level is “a tricky thing” and that city officials try to take a balanced approach that protects public health while having the lightest touch possible.
He said that as winter weather arrives along with holiday travel, public health officials expect more COVID-19 and more flu.
“We don’t want to lose any of the gains of the last few months,” Barr said. “But, at the same time, it’s appropriate for us to respond to find a reasonable mitigation level.”
Barr said that the city now has rapid antigen test kits that can be distributed for people to self-test at home. He said that as supplies grow, more residents will be able to test that way.
According to the city’s website, “rapid antigen tests return results in about 15 minutes and are effective for use for individuals who are at all symptomatic – even with mild symptoms – or for individuals who have recently been in close contact with someone else who tested positive or was suspected to have COVID-19.”
“There’s a ton of value there,” Barr said. “If you wake up and feel weird but you aren’t sure your symptoms rise to the level of calling the city for a test, this lowers the barrier and friction to testing.”
In a news release earlier this week, city health officials said that the rapid tests are effective at detecting COVID-19 when it becomes transmissible. However, the rapid tests are not as sensitive as the PCR tests, which are conducted in a doctor’s office or through local drive-thru facilities and processed at Bartlett Regional Hospital.
Barr said that wide use of the rapid tests will reduce the data integrity around case counts, but that the trade-off is worth it.
“We think the benefits of quick, cheap and easy testing will help outweigh the degradation of our situational awareness,” he said.
Barr said the plan is to make the tests widely available once more supply is on hand. Until then, CBJ is limiting distribution.
According to the city’s website, “organizations that serve people who are less able or less likely to acquire a test through a local health provider, Capstone Clinic at the Juneau airport, or CBJ’s drive-thru testing site. These organizations initially include daycares, senior living facilities, low-income housing facilities, organizations that serve people experiencing disabilities or homelessness, food banks, some employers including restaurant/bar operators, and others.”
Send an email to CovidQuestions@juneau.org to learn more.
Rapid results at school
Juneau school officials said they are already using the rapid tests to reduce quarantine time after potential COVID-19 exposure in classrooms.
At Tuesday evening’s school board meeting, Bridget Weiss, superintendent, said the district had 850 rapid antigen tests and had identified four different situations where they could be used.
Weiss said that quarantine requirements were weighing on staff and families—especially at the elementary school level, where the Delta variant had hit unvaccinated students hard—contributing to overall fatigue. She said home testing is a way to minimize time out of school.
“Every strategy we use is about layers,” Weiss said. “No one strategy wins the game for us. It’s all the efforts combined.”
Highly vaccinated staff
Weiss said school district staff members are highly vaccinated across all roles. She said that about 94% of all school employees are now vaccinated. She noted that unvaccinated staff members participate in weekly testing according to a policy the school board set in September.
Barr said the city doesn’t have an exact number of vaccinated city workers. But, he suspects vaccination rates broadly mirror the community level and is likely a few percentage points higher because the entire city workforce is eligible for vaccination.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.