NEWS RELEASE: August 11 Unified Command Meeting

UNIFIED COMMAND DISCUSSES DOWNWARD CASE COUNT

SITKA, August 11, 2021 – Acting Incident Commander Rob Janik reported the case rate was trending down. He commended citizens, businesses, and visitors of Sitka for taking mitigation efforts that made the difference which included maintaining social distancing, wearing masks when around others, washing hands, and limiting the size of groups that gather. He said vaccinations were the underlying single most important mitigation to protect yourself from the pandemic. For those that were not vaccinated, Unified Command strongly encourages individuals to speak with a health care provider to get more information about vaccination. He stated there was much disinformation out about vaccines. He encouraged individuals to talk to a trusted health care provider for an educated opinion on vaccination.

Dr. Bruhl, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Chief Medical Officer and Incident Commander thanked Acting Incident Commander Rob Janik and Thor Christianson, Assembly Liaison for the leadership and community awareness from the recent citation that was presented at the Assembly meeting on August 10 that recognized Sitka’s healthcare professionals, first responders, and frontline workers. He told of those that were working hard and the stress involved when taking care of COVID-19 patients with the recent increase in case rates. He reported that the hospital was busy with 15 to 20 patients most days. He said the number of COVID-19 inpatients had fallen from the high of 12 a week ago to 1 or 2 in the last few days. He felt it was consistent with the number of cases that had been posted to the City and Borough of Sitka’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

He told of his concerns with seeing some patients extremely sick, and that the severely ill were younger patients mainly in their 30’s. He said that was keeping with the trends nationally as well as in Alaska. Anchorage continued to see some very sick individuals with the Delta variant and that those typically were unvaccinated. He said that the vaccination was not perfect, but that it helped prevent hospitalizations and death for most people. He gave the statistic that 97 to 98% hospitalized or dying were unvaccinated individuals.

He relayed that the FDA was on the brink of a booster shot for those that were immunocompromised and felt that sometime in the short term SEARHC would be bringing those services to people that qualify although it was too soon to say how many additional clinics would take place. He reminded that vaccine registration was available to anyone regardless of if an individual had been a previous patient online at https://covid19.searhc.org/. He said that registration for vaccinations were consistently at about 70 to 80 patients a week through SEARHC and thought it was close to 100 including Harry Race’s vaccination clinics.

Dr. Bruhl reported that SEARHC continued to give monoclonal antibody treatments to high-risk patients that have tested positive for COVID-19 and that it showed to reduce hospitalization or death. He told of the surge in Haines that possibly was due to the large gathering for the state fair. He said that creating large gatherings/venues was not advisable at this time. He pointed out that there continued to be a steady stream of individuals coming into Southeast communities and he urged the community to consider having all travelers test upon arrival as an added level of safety. He said he was enjoying working with the schools with their mitigation plans and that he had submitted a request to the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for several thousand test kits for the school system and a variety of local sport teams.

SEARHC testing was available between the hours of Noon and 3:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday across from the hospital. Individuals that were symptomatic should be seen and can go to Mountain Side Urgent Care at 209 Moller Drive.

Public Health Nurse Denise Ewing echoed that she felt the mitigations were making a difference and believed that it contributed to lower case count numbers. She said that distancing, masking, keeping social circles small was directly related to the decrease in numbers. She noted that the decrease was happening fast just as the increase had. She stated she had been working and would continue to work with the schools along with Dr. Bruhl.

Ewing told of concerns with Hypoxia in children with the Delta variant and the effects on young children. She said that cases in the age range of zero to 19 in the month of July were 90 with an additional 17 as of August 11. She said that most have had successful contract tracing with only three being asymptomatic, some with minor symptoms, and others in the emergency room. She stated that the goal was to keep children safely in school. She brought up the increase in Hypoxia and Silent or Happy Hypoxia and told that patients were not aware of it. She said the symptoms of hypoxia were confusion, cough, fast or slow heart rate, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, sweating, and wheezing. She said that if an individual was experiencing these symptoms to call 911 in order to check oxygen rate. Silent hypoxia was being seen with the Delta variant with common symptoms such as cough, confusion, sweating, wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, fast or slow heart rate, change of color of lips from natural color, and profuse sweating without exertion. She said that a pulse oximeter was easy to use and a good tool to have if an individual had symptoms or were positive with COVID-19. She stated that a 98 to 100 rate was within normal range and that anything below 94%, a person should be seen by a health care professional. She said that they had been seeing patients with low oxygen levels and that it was not easily detectable.

Thor Christianson, Logistics reported that although there had been some price changes, supplies continued to be available.

Public Information Officers Melissa Henshaw and Jessica Ieremia reported many calls and emails with travel questions along with concerns, comments, and questions of when it was ok for an individual to go back to work if they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Janelle Vanasse, Superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School (MEHS) reported they were getting geared up for students returning to Sitka beginning August 20. She felt they had a strong plan that included asking families to test prior to traveling, testing upon arrival, and student testing again 5 days later with restrictive activities during that time. She stated some students would be quarantining the first week off campus, but they would not be in town at least the first two weeks but also not until the community was out of the high alert level. She thanked Public Health and SEARHC for working together to put together a plan and for testing/screening along with the vaccine clinic that they would assist with. She said that MEHS should be about 80% vaccinated after the first few weeks of school.

Sitka School District Superintendent Frank Hauser stated excitement for the district to return to full day, in person instruction. Students would start on August 23. The district would continue to use a layered mitigation approach to protect students, teachers, and staff to make in person learning safe and possible. The district mitigations would correspond with and change according to the City and Borough of Sitka alert level. He stated if returning to in person school was not right for families at this time, there was the option of a home-based teacher support program to anyone interested through the REACH program that had been serving Sitka for 27 years. For questions, call 747.7514. He thanked Dr. Bruhl and Public Health for their continued support and consultation with the district.

Anne Davis, Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) stated that their employees were still working from home, they were social distancing, and their offices were closed to the public.

Trish White, Harry Race Pharmacist reported that there would be a vaccine clinic on Friday beginning at 10:00 a.m. next to Harry Race Pharmacy with all three vaccines available with both first and second dose for a two-dose series, and that appointment times were filling up fast. She stated that there were 38 or 39 vaccinations done last week. Citizens may register for a vaccination clinic at Harry Race Pharmacy.  

Due to the High Alert Level in Sitka, Sitka Unified Command recommends continued mitigation: face coverings are strongly encouraged for individuals regardless of vaccination status, maintaining physical distance of 6 feet along with following CDC guidelines CDC Guidelines.

We urge citizens to remain diligent and practice proper hygiene measures, such as washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with others. In addition, get tested but stay home if you feel ill, wear a face covering when around others, and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces on a regular basis.

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to the flu – fever, aching, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, and sometimes decreased sense of taste and smell. If you are concerned you might have contracted the coronavirus contact the COVID hotline at 966.8799. Outside of normal clinic hours, patients can contact the SEARHC 24/7 Nurse Advice Line at 1.800.613.0560 to be triaged by a registered nurse. 

The Sitka Emergency Unified Command continues to urge citizens to enroll for a vaccination online with Harry Race Pharmacy at Harry Race Pharmacy and with SEARHC at https://covid19.searhc.org/. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated to be safe and effective. COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk of people spreading the virus. Being vaccinated is the best way to protect our community.

The Emergency Operations Center encourages residents to prepare for any local emergency by ensuring each family member has a 14- day emergency supply kit, including any necessary medications.

For information on the local pandemic response, visit https://cityofsitka.org or https://covid19.searhc.org.

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