No cases of the new coronavirus had been diagnosed in the state of Alaska as of Tuesday afternoon. But as state officials urge Alaskans to prepare for the arrival of the virus in Alaska, a team of Kodiak leaders assembled to ensure the island is prepared in case of an outbreak.
The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has sickened more than 92,700 people worldwide, killing more than 3,000. In the U.S., more than 100 cases have been diagnosed, 30 of them in the state of Washington, causing nine deaths. As of Tuesday morning, three patients had been tested for the virus across the state of Alaska, all returning a negative result. No Kodiak tests have been reported.
Though the virus has yet to reach the state, emergency responders and healthcare professionals in Kodiak have been preparing for a possible outbreak on the island, while urging residents not to panic and to practice basic personal hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Kodiak emergency preparedness team spearheading the coronavirus response includes Kodiak City Manager Mike Tvenge, Deputy City Manager Josie Bahnke, City Fire Chief Jim Mullican, City Police Chief Tim Putney, police spokesperson Lt. Francis de la Fuente, and Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center emergency medicine physician Dr. John Everett.
The Kodiak emergency preparedness team will meet once a week until further notice, and will provide updates to the community as necessary, de la Fuente said.
The team will cover the coronavirus response on the Kodiak road system, but a separate response team would deal with cases in the remote villages on Kodiak Island, according to de la Fuente. Kodiak’s remote population includes around 700 residents spread across six villages. Mullican said the Kodiak City Fire Department will be ready and able to assist in the transportation of patients arriving in the city from remote villages.
The Kodiak Area Native Association, which provides health and social services to Kodiak’s remote villages, is training its staff both in town and in the villages about identifying the virus according to KANA Medical Director Dr. Elise Pietnikoff.
“KANA is collaborating with PKIMC and ANTHC (Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium) to prepare for the potential of COVID-19 in the state of Alaska,” Pletnikoff said in a statement. “We are currently screening all patients who present to the clinic for risk of COVID-19 infection and ensuring that patients and clinical staff are following safe isolation and protective measures to avoid virus spread. We are educating all of our clinical staff, in Kodiak and in the villages, about triage and care plans for patients with potential COVID-19.”
Mullican said the fire department is equipped with sufficient basic protection gear on ambulances to ensure that emergency service providers are able to safely assist patients in case they may be infected with the virus.
PKIMC spokesperson Carlie Franz said the hospital does not currently have coronavirus testing kits, but has the ability to send specimens for testing at the state lab in Anchorage. Specimens can be sent from Kodiak to Anchorage on commercial flights, and results for a coronavirus test can be available within six to eight hours from the time they arrive in Anchorage, she said.
Early last month, Franz stated that PKIMC, Kodiak’s only hospital, is equipped with a screening tool that prompts members of admitting staff to ask a series of questions of all patients checking into the medical center, covering travel history, exposure to those who may have had the virus, and any symptoms the patient may be experiencing.
In the event a patient does not pass the screening, the patient would be masked and placed in an isolation room. Public health professionals would then investigate if other individuals on the island were exposed to the virus.
“We are very confident in our ability to care for highly-infectious patients. In addition to negative pressure rooms, we have all of the supplies necessary to treat a patient which include personal protective equipment (PPE), consisting of special clothing and masks that prevent the spread of infection from the patient to the caregivers,” Franz wrote in a statement dated Feb. 4.
In a news release issued on Monday, the Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization urged Kodiak residents to maintain proper hygiene as a “best defense” against COVID-19. The release also stated that residents who are concerned they may have contracted or come in contact with the virus should call their healthcare provider before coming to a clinic.
“This really comes down to ‘individuals can really make a difference,’” Mullican said. “Washing hands regularly, staying home when you’re sick, coughing into a tissue ... That’s what’s going to prevent this from spreading. It’s really similar to what people should do with the normal flu that we get.”
Officials recommend staying home if you are sick; if you develop a fever and cough or shortness of breath, call a healthcare provider or the emergency department for instructions; cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing and dispose of tissue immediately; wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available; clean frequently touched surfaces and objects; and stay current with influenza vaccination.
“The Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization is working with federal, state and local partners including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” the release stated.
The Kodiak Island Borough School District is also taking steps to prepare for a possible arrival of the coronavirus in Kodiak, according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux.
“I don’t foresee us ever closing the schools. We’ll just transfer how we carry out instruction,” he said during a board of education work session on Monday, alluding to online education platforms that could be used to facilitate online learning. “The vehicle of instruction would be either e-learning or asynchronous learning.”
LeDoux said that while the internet is the most effective way to deliver remote instruction, the district has to be prepared to operate without the internet.
More than a dozen schools across the state of Washington closed on Monday, responding to concern that some students had been exposed to the virus, according to a report in the Seattle Times. LeDoux said that when a pandemic risk arises, schools are often some of the first facilities to close, as a measure to prevent disease spread.
Even if school facilities close, the district will continue to distribute free meals to qualifying students, LeDoux said. Information technology department staff, maintenance department staff and building principals and secretaries will continue to work, LeDoux said.
A team of administrators met on Monday to discuss the district’s logistical plan to address a potential outbreak. The team will continue to meet on a regular basis, and will present its plans publicly once they are finalized, LeDoux said. The district website, www.kibsd.org, has been updated to feature information about the district response to COVID-19. While the website currently includes only general information, LeDoux said district materials regarding possible school closures will be published in English, Spanish and Tagalog.
Children in elementary schools will be required to wash their hands three times a day to promote personal hygiene and prevent spreading illness. Elementary school classrooms are equipped with sinks in each classroom. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed in the middle school and high school. Custodial staff will wipe down surfaces such as desks and door knobs and will be “doing more intense cleaning,” LeDoux said. The district has a “substantial supply” of cleaning agents and hand sanitizer. Principals and teachers will increase distance between students by separating desks when possible.
“These are low-level responses at this point,” LeDoux said. “We have not canceled any group activities.”
LeDoux said that while the Anchorage School District has canceled all planned international trips, he has held off on that measure. A group of Kodiak High School students is currently planning to travel to Greece in less than 100 days, after spending months planning and fundraising for the trip. As of Tuesday, seven coronavirus cases had been diagnosed in Greece.
“I see no reason to issue a unilateral cancellation of the trip that could cost thousands of dollars,” LeDoux said, noting that participants stand to lose $15,000 if the trip is cancelled.