NEWS RELEASE: January 12 Unified Command Meeting

UNIFIED COMMAND DISCUSSES THE NEED FOR CONTINUED MITIGATIONS

SITKA, January 12, 2022 – Dr. Bruhl, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Chief Medical Officer and Incident Commander reported the current surge with the Omicrom variant was rolling through the entire State of Alaska. He said the State of Alaska was lagging a few weeks behind the lower 48. He reported virtually all the variants that were being tested around the State was the Omicrom variant. He noted it was much more transmissible but less virulent. People were not as sick in general although, those that were still susceptible were and can get very and even deathly sick. He stated COVID-19 continued to be a real threat to human health especially with those that had chronic medical problems and people over the age of 65. He said the community needed to protect them and continue to do so with being aware of wearing masks around others, maintaining social distance, and washing hands. He stated that they were seeing cases of the flu which was another good reason for mitigations.

With regards to added activities that the hospital was undertaking, to reflect increased level of caution, Dr. Bruhl stated they had restricted the use of the cafeteria to whom was in or directly related to the hospital and they were not allowing congregation there. He said that staff was using N95 masks for all direct patient to patient contact noting that the ambulatory environments were using surgical masks. He said that because the hospital was where the most vulnerable were taken care of in general, they were insisting on N95 use for all patient to patient contacts in that environment. He said the CDC announcement two weeks ago changed the guidance for employers to allow staff who have contracted COVID-19 to return to employment after five days if they were asymptomatic and if all was resolved after the five days and it was safe to return to work, the requirement to wear a mask for a minimum of five days. He noted that most surgical masks would be fine. He emphasized the important of personal hygiene such as washing hands, not touching nose and eyes, wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, and to not go to work if you were sick. He stated that those were the basic measures as a community that would help the most.

Planning Section Chief Rob Janik reported Fire Hall protocols in place for a long time now of all patient contact with an N95 mask with eye protection or a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR). He noted the importance that the PAPR does not filter the exiting air. He stated they were OK with supplies and were doing testing of staff members if exposed or symptomatic. He said that there was an EMT training program this weekend with a lot of mitigation in place. 

Public Health Nurse Denise Ewing urged those to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by staying home if you were sick. She noted if you had tested positive at a testing site or with a personal at home test to isolate yourself and notify your close contacts. She informed that close contacts were those you have been with 2 days prior to symptoms or go to by your test date if you did not have symptoms. She said to wash hands, wear masks, get vaccinated and take care of your overall mental and physical health.

Ewing told of the three masks that were suggested by the CDC as superior during Omicron: N95, double straps worn by medical professionals, which would say NOSH on them and to be careful of knock offs; KN95, ear loop straps, sewn to a point; and KF95, ear loop straps with flat panel in front. She suggested considering to upgrading to a higher filtration mask. She noted that surgical masks, cloth masks, gaiters/buffs were not as effective unless doubled up and to make sure it was sealed around the face with no gaps. She stated if glasses fog up, the mask was not sealed well enough.

She told that the SEARHC COVID-19 testing was at Mountainside Urgent Care Monday through Friday 12:00 until 3:00 p.m., and Saturday 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. She stated to call the COVID hotline or Urgent Care for testing outside of those hours.

She said that Bionex or QuickVue at home tests were in high demand and noted shortages with none currently available from Public Health or Harry Race Pharmacy, but they were continuing to work on getting them in stock.

She relayed new CDC Guidelines: For Persons Who are Exposed to Someone with COVID-19. If you were asymptomatic and • have been boosted or • completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine within the last 6 months or • completed the primary series of J&J vaccine within the last two months then • wear a mask around others for 10 days • test on day 5 if you develop symptoms get tested and stay home. If you were asymptomatic and • completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over 6 months ago and are not boosted or • completed the primary series of J&J over two months ago and were not boosted or • are unvaccinated then • self-quarantine for five days; after that, continue to wear a mask around others for five additional days • if unable to quarantine, wear a mask for 10 days • test on day five if you develop symptoms get tested and stay home.

Ewing reported that Influenza was in Sitka, Public Health was seeing an uptick in Influenza, and recommended getting a flu shot for anyone 6 months and older. She noted that vaccines were not everything but were an extremely helpful tool to keep from getting heavily impacted and or hospitalized.

She stated the CDC recommended everyone 12 years or older should get a COVID-19 vaccine booster and noted the following:

  • For people who received a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine initially, a booster was recommended five months after their primary series.
  • A booster was recommended two months after an initial Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
  • mRNA vaccines were preferred vaccines.
  • When you had completed the primary series of two shots (unless you were immune compromised then that was three) and you get a booster, you were considered up to date and fully vaccinated right after the dose, you did not have to wait the typical two weeks for full immunity.

Ewing relayed that the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, both the Division of Public Health and Section of Epidemiology were working on the next phase of pandemic response with case investigation and contact tracing.  As of February 28, 2022, broad-based contact investigation and tracing would begin infrastructure transitions to an approach that supported high risk settings (congregate settings) with a streamlined team. She said the team would focus on supporting and coaching mitigation strategies including quarantine, isolation, testing, and workplace infection prevention. She said the streamlined team of contact tracers would support congregate settings such as fisheries, mining, homeless shelters, and assisted living settings with mitigation strategies including quarantine, isolation, testing, and workplace infection prevention. Which meant the State of Alaska would be transitioning away from broad-based tracing of all positive cases. She noted with the high Omicron transmission rates, it was no longer feasible to keep contact tracing successfully and accurately in the current iteration. As such they were focusing on a more targeted approach to those persons that would be most affected and to those we could most impact. With the availability of vaccines, reduced isolation and quarantine requirements, and expansive dissemination of information to the public on the need to isolate and seek testing when sick, wear a mask in public spaces, and quarantine after exposure, contact tracing of all positive cases did not provide the benefit in reduction of cases seen early in the pandemic before these resources were as widely available. They were focusing efforts on persons who were most affected by COVID-19 to make the greatest impact on the vulnerable populations within the State. She said early on in an epidemic, case investigation and contact tracing were needed to stop transmission and prevent a large outbreak from occurring. She relayed if efforts to contain the epidemic were unsuccessful and widespread transmission occurred in the community, then stricter community mitigation measures (such as stay-at-home orders, business closures, etc.) should be implemented. It was critical that case investigation and contact tracing activities be adequately resourced and widely accepted in any community where they were implemented. She said when there was no longer capacity to investigate a majority of new COVID-19 cases, case investigation, and contact tracing may not be the most effective approach noting at that point, suspending or scaling down contact tracing activities and reimplementing strict mitigation measures (such as stay-at-home orders, business closures, and school closures) until transmission begins to decline would be a strategy. She said with the high transmissibility and rapidly increasing case counts with the Omicron variant, capacity to investigate the majority of cases had been exceeded. The incubation period for Omicron was estimated to be two to four days, which reduced the ability of contact tracing to effectively investigate cases and notify contacts of the need to quarantine before the contacts became ill and further spread COVID-19 within the community.

Ewing stated that Public Health was available to answer questions or to help navigate COVID-19 Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and by calling 907.747.3255.

Thor Christianson, Logistics reported the ability to get most medical supplies.

Travis Miller, Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) reported testing of staff when requested and every two weeks with in-house testing which was reported through the state website. He relayed that most staff were working from home this week.

Public Information Officers Melissa Henshaw and Jessica Ieremia reported very few calls or emails and told of social media posts surrounding symptoms, quarantining, and isolation.

Incident Commander Craig Warren reported that both school districts were incredibly busy trying to keep in person learning and that Mt. Edgecumbe High School was finding it challenging to get students back to Sitka. He noted the trend and asked for help with the whole community. He urged citizens to not go to work sick with the flu or with COVID-19. He said it would be transmitted to co-workers and customers. He reminded of mitigations, washing hands, social distancing, and masking. He said only eight students would attend the EMT class in person in a large room with N95 masks on the entire time. He reminded citizens that we were not out of the woods yet with this and that we needed to double down on it. All mitigation measures talked about for almost two years would help us all out, help out the hospital, loved ones, friends, and emergency responders. He thanked those that were doing their part and those that sat on Unified Command.

Due to the High Alert Level in Sitka, Sitka Unified Command recommends continued mitigation: face coverings were 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.

# # #

Leave a Reply