Rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in Juneau prompted city officials to change the city’s risk level to “Level 3-Modified High” on Monday, a level that requires masking in public regardless of vaccination status.
The announcement comes as the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across the state and 12 staff members at Bartlett Regional Hospital are unable to work due to quarantine and isolation requirements.
In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Robert Barr, deputy city manager, said that the city saw 190 news cases over the long holiday weekend, which includes a five-day reporting period. Barr said the number reported did not include people who tested positive through a rapid self-test, which means the actual disease burden in the city is likely much higher.
“Our hope is to help curb transmission so that every workplace can stay staffed,” he said. “We are starting to see a significant uptick in staff that are in isolation or quarantine across the borough.”
He said that city departments have seen a “smattering of cases.” Still, Barr noted that the number of hospital employees who are unable to work represents the greatest number of incidents the hospital has faced since the pandemic started.
Barr said he did not know if the omicron variant is driving the cases but said it seemed likely. Alaska public health officials reported the state’s second confirmed omicron infection shortly before Christmas.
Barr said that so far, he’s hearing that local COVID-19 cases appear to be “fairly mild.”
“Knock on wood, hopefully, that will continue,” he said, noting that while the evidence is anecdotal, Juneau is a highly vaccinated community, which tends to bode well for keeping hospitalization numbers in check.
According to the CBJ COVID-19 dashboard, almost 80% of Juneau’s eligible population has completed a vaccine series, which translates to about 74% of the total population being fully vaccinated. Currently, vaccines are approved for people over the age of 5.
Booster shots for teens likely coming soon
On Monday, Food and Drug Administration officials announced they are expanding COVID-19 boosters as the country confronts the omicron surge, allowing extra Pfizer shots for children as young as 12.
Boosters already are recommended for everyone 16 and older, and federal regulators on Monday decided they’re also warranted for 12- to 15-year-olds once enough time has passed since their last dose.
But the move, coming as classes restart after the holidays, isn’t the final step. A panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to decide later this week whether to recommend boosters for the younger teens with a final decision by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director.
The FDA also said everyone 12 and older who’s eligible for a Pfizer booster can get one as early as five months after their last dose rather than six months.
Locally, booster shots will be available at the Juneau Public Health Center two days a week, Barr said.
Barr said appointments will open up for teens a day or two after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give the official green light to move forward.
He said that city and school officials are not planning on-site booster clinics because they don’t expect significant demand to warrant the service.
He said once the people can register for COVID-19 vaccines online through https://juneau.org/covid-19/vaccine-information.
FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said even though serious illness is uncommon in younger teens, a booster will help them avoid that risk — while also helping reduce the spread of omicron or any other coronavirus mutant.
“Hopefully this will be not just a call for people to go get their booster shot,” but for the tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans to rethink that choice, Marks said. “It’s not too late to start to get vaccinated.”
The FDA based its latest booster decision largely on real-world data from Israel that found no new safety concerns when 6,300 12- to 15-year-olds got a Pfizer booster five months after their second dose.
Likewise, the FDA said even more data from Israel showed no problems with giving anyone eligible for a Pfizer booster that extra dose a month sooner than the six months that until now has been U.S. policy.
Barr said that testing capacity at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Site is “pushed” right now. He said requests for testing appointments are being moved to the following day due to capacity constraints.
In addition, he said the city is “pretty consistently” running out of at-home test kits across distribution centers, which include the City Hall cash office, all public libraries, Juneau Public Health Center and the Juneau Police Station, according to the city.
Barr said he encourages people who test positive in an at-home test to “consider yourself positive” and not seek a follow-up PCR test for confirmation.
However, he said that people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms but testing negative on rapid tests should arrange a PCR test.
“That’s the priority,” he said.
Airport testing ending soon
The statewide program to test travelers at Alaska’s airports will end at the end of January. Barr said he does not think Capital City Fire/Rescue personnel will step in to offer tests due to limited capacity.
“I’m glad we have it through January,” he said. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in cases right now. But, we probably aren’t going to have the capacity to do testing at the airport and fire training center.”
Barr said he hopes that the state can distribute rapid antigen tests throughout Alaska’s airports so travelers can pick one up and use it to test upon arrival and 36 hours later.
Last week, the Kenai Peninsula Clarion reported that on-site COVID-19 testing at Alaska airports had caught just over 6,000 COVID-19 cases since it began in early June of 2020.
City officials weigh in
Currently, Juneau has an ordinance that covers COVID-19 mitigation measures. It includes a collection of strategies that vary based on the level of viral spread, local and regional hospital capacity, and public health’s ability to conduct contract tracing.
The overall mitigation measures will end on March 1, 2022, unless city leaders vote to renew them.
On Jan. 10, Assembly members will meet to discuss the future of the measures and begin considering reauthorizing them.
Barr said the Emergency Operation Center members will recommend assembly members stick with the current mitigation measures, with a few minor modifications.
In late December, Barr proposed three changes to the mitigations, and Assembly members agreed to move the proposed changes to the whole assembly for a vote. The changes include:
— Modifying the definition for the fully open level from the current requirement that 97% of the population be eligible for vaccination to “pending guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and DHSS.”
— Changing the wording around masking to a ‘recommendation’ at the moderate spread level.
— Revising the way gathering size limits are expressed to reflect a percentage of capacity rather than a hard number when the city is experiencing moderate or high rates of spread. Barr said this change would allow greater flexibility for specific venues.
In a memo to the committee before the December meeting, Barr cited several factors for the proposed changes, including the community’s high vaccination rate and booster dose availability.
In the memo, he said the vaccines have shown the ability to moderate the worst outcomes against the variants and noted that comprehensive testing is widely available — including rapid antigen testing —and noted that therapeutics are also available.
Past hearings on the mitigation measures have attracted large crowds and passionate debate on the topic.
When the measures were last extended in October, Assembly members unanimously voted to extend the measures after protesters appeared outside City Hall and heard hours of public testimony both for and against the policies. Police officers stood just outside the council chambers as the debate unfolded.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.