As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to sweep through Alaska, local officials are taking action.
In a Friday morning news conference to address Juneau’s quickly escalating COVID-19 infection rate, city and hospital officials called for residents to do their part to prevent the spread of the virus, keep schools open for in-person learning and keep the economy moving.
At 5 p.m. on Friday, enhanced mitigation measures take effect, raising the overall community alert to Level 3, with full community mitigation strategies in place.
“We are hoping the restrictions are short-lived,” said Mila Cosgrove, incident commander for the City and Borough of Juneau Emergency Operations Center. “Delta burns bright but it burns quickly.”
Cosgrove said that CBJ will likely modify some city services, such as library hours, to redeploy staff for emergency purposes starting on Monday. However, officials said they don’t expect to issue a full hunker-down order.
“It may feel like we are back at the beginning, but we aren’t. We have well-developed tools and we know what works,” she said.
Bartlett staff asks for help
“I urge each one of you to renew your commitment,” said Rose Lawhorne, CEO of Bartlett Regional Hospital.
She encouraged residents to get vaccinated, wear masks, get tested when needed, and isolate if the test comes back positive.
“Please get vaccinated,” she said.
In addition, Cosgrove asked residents to keep their social bubbles small. She asked that anyone receiving a positive test result call the Public Health Department at (907)465-3353 to report it, as contract tracing efforts have slowed.
She also encouraged people with positive tests to reach out to anyone they have had contact with over the last 48 hours to let them know about the exposure.
Lawhorne said that the staff at Bartlett is feeling the strain.
“Like all community members, our health care teams are tired. But, we know there’s strength in numbers. We are doing our part and ask the community to join us,” she said.
While Bartlett Regional Hospital is not over patient capacity, according to the city, it is contending with staffing shortages and nationwide healthcare supply chain issues that will make it difficult if hospitalizations increase.
Lawhorne said that the hospital is closely examining elective procedures to see if some can be postponed to preserve in-patient capacity. She noted that delaying elective surgeries does place a burden on some community members but that the hospital needs to protect resources.
In a news release issued later Friday, hospital officials announced that they are evaluating all surgeries with predictable inpatient post-op stays to determine the level of urgency. In addition, they announced they will postpone elective lower-acuity cases that will need inpatient care. According to the hospital, the situation will be assessed weekly, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis.
Additionally, the news release shared new visitor policies. Admitted patients are allowed two designated visitors and patients at the hospital on an outpatient basis may have one visitor. However, obstetrics patients are allowed one primary support person and one additional support person. No visitors are allowed in the Emergency Department except under certain circumstances, the release said.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Cosgrove said that the city is seeing an uptick in new vaccinations this week.
Cosgrove encouraged residents to start or complete their vaccination series during the news conference and said that certain people may need a third dose now.
A news release from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Friday morning urged all Alaskans who are immunocompromised to follow a national recommendation to get a three-dose vaccine series now.
“This additional mRNA dose in a primary series should not be confused with a booster dose. Third doses are available to moderately or severely immunocompromised persons throughout the state anywhere COVID-19 vaccines are provided,” the release reads.
According to the DHSS, people receiving treatment for cancer, those who have received an organ transplant or those taking medicine to suppress their immune system are among those who should talk with a health care provider about a third shot.
In addition, the release said the state is closely following news about a federal plan to offer booster doses starting in late September to all Americans who are already fully vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
Cosgrove said the city is preparing to offer large-scale public clinics to administer booster shots this fall. She said the clinics will be similar to the ones the city hosted earlier this year to vaccinate residents quickly.
In addition, she said the city is closely watching federal developments related to full approval of the vaccine and authorization to give the vaccine to children under the age of 12.
Cosgrove compared the protection a vaccine offers to the protection that comes from a good raincoat.
“In Southeast Alaska, we know that raincoats protect us against most wet weather,” she said, adding that even the best raincoat will let a little rain in during certain conditions. “Delta is a heavy, windy downpour.”
Lawhorne said that local COVID-19 related deaths have occurred primarily in unvaccinated people, which mirrors the national trend. Juneau has reported 8 COVID-19 associated deaths so far.
Battling fatigue and shortages
Officials acknowledged the phenomenon of COVID-fatigue and said they feel it, too.
“All the faces you see here are tired of COVID, too,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove and Lawhorne said that addressing staffing shortages are important to the city and the hospital and that both are hiring. They encouraged people looking for work to visit their respective websites to learn about job openings.
Late Friday afternoon, a city news release said that all three Juneau Public Libraries will have reduced hours starting Monday, Aug. 23, as staff are reassigned to help with the pandemic response. According to the release, the shift is temporary and due to staffing shortages.
“Reduced library hours will allow library staff to be reassigned to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), enabling increased capacity for COVID-19 testing and quarantine/isolation services for the community while COVID-19 is spiking,” the release said.
The downtown and Mendenhall Valley libraries will be open from noon to 6 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. or weekends. The Douglas branch will be open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on weekends.
Schools remain open
In a Thursday afternoon email to parents, school officials said that Juneau’s schools will remain open despite nine positive cases across five schools over the first two days of operation.
“As we started up the school year this week it didn’t take long for us to experience what our community is experiencing. We have had multiple positive cases of COVID-19 show up in schools,” the email reads.
School officials said they are working with the Public Health Department each time a case is identified and are closely watching the overall situation.
City and state health officials continue to encourage people exhibiting symptoms —even mild ones —to get tested for COVID-19. People experiencing symptoms should not go to the airport for testing. Instead, people can register to be tested online through https://juneau.org/covid-19 or by calling (907)586-6000.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.