As the state of Alaska girds itself to deal with the issue of COVID-19, Juneau will soon host one of the players from the early days of the outbreak.
The MS Westerdam, a Holland America vessel barred from making port in the Philippines, Guam and Thailand over fears of the coronavirus, will be making port in Juneau for several weeks around March 22, according to a City and Borough of Juneau release.
“At this point, what I would say is we are cautiously monitoring the situation,” said Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
The Westerdam has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Holland America Line, and it will undergo a cleaning protocol approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prior to arriving in Juneau. One Westerdam passenger did test positive for the coronavirus, but the CDC later said that test result was a false-positive.
The vessel has no passengers, only 500-700 crew, who will remain in Juneau for several weeks before resuming its regular cruise schedule.
The crew is a different crew than was present when the ship was barred from making port in Asia, said Department of Health Social Services commissioner Adam Crum in a Friday teleconference.
“At this point, we don’t have a reason to believe we should have concern with the crew,” Cosgrove said.
She said CBJ would not be able to prevent the Westerdam from making port in Juneau without declaring a civil emergency, and that would require reason to believe the ship would put residents at risk.
“We’re obviously not going to put the community at risk,” Cosgrove said.
Are we ready for cruise season?
While the Westerdam has been cleared, what about the millions of shipborne tourists that will soon flock to Juneau, along with any diseases that they happen to bring with them? Will an outbreak overwhelm Juneau’s ability to handle the disease?
“We’ve been in really close contact with the Cruise Lines International Association,” said Alaska Department of Health and Social Services chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink in a teleconference Friday. “We do not have the expectation that if there was a positive case, or a series of positive cases, that any Southeast community would be expected to handle it on their own.”
Alaska is ready for the onset of cruise season, Crum said.
“CLIA has ramped up procedures for cruise ships coming to Alaska,” Crum said during the teleconference. “We are making sure as a state that we’re comfortable with the programs that they’ve put in place.”
Calm down and wash your hands
Cruise ships aren’t the only possible vector for a coronavirus outbreak. What about all the air traffic through Alaska, especially the Southeast, where so many flights go through Washington, home of an outbreak that’s infected 70 and killed at least 11 at press time?
“We’re not seeing SeaTac (International) Airport as a high-risk place,” Zink said.
DHSS currently has two labs, and have tested 14 Alaskans for the coronavirus as of Friday afternoon. Twelve of those tests are negative, two are still being tested, none have been positive. But testing is for the most high-risk people, Zink said — not for anyone with a cough.
“It isn’t going to prevent you from getting it later, it isn’t going to cure you, and it isn’t going to make you better,” Zink said about the test. “It’s really our elderly and our vulnerable that we need to be worried about.”
Most individuals who contract the coronavirus won’t require hospitalization because of the mildness of their symptoms, Zink said. Those really at risk are elderly people and people who’ve been compromised by prior cardiovascular or respiratory conditions. Zink also asked for some civility in dealing with the personnel on the front line of dealing with the outbreak.
“People aren’t being so kind to each other or so kind to our epidemiology nurses on calls,” Zink said.
Zink strongly discouraged people from coming in for coronavirus testing, as the testing takes up the limited time and resources deployed to health centers to deal with the outbreak, as well as opening people up to diseases from others in the hospital.
“We’re all going to be safer if we test the people who are the most high risk,” Zink said. “It’s only a one time, point in time test to see if the person has the virus at that time.”
Want to learn more about CBJ’s response?
CBJ has scheduled a Special Committee of the Whole Meeting on Monday, March 9 at 6 p.m. to update the community on their response to the coronavirus at City Hall.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.