As of Tuesday, there were 176 known active cases of COVID in Kodiak, a number that is up almost 5% from last week’s high. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID or COVID-related symptoms has increased from two to three this week, and one person had to be transferred off-island last weekend, according to the Emergency Operations Center.
In total, 1,917 people on the island have been diagnosed with the virus at some point, and seven have died of COVID.
As numbers spiked and dipped during the past 18 months, the Emergency Services Council has tried to impose, loosen, and then, in some cases impose again a number of restrictions designed to keep Kodiak residents safe. Those safeguards have ranged from limiting the number of people who could be in indoor spaces at any one time to mandatory mask mandates at various times.
Separately from the Emergency Services Council, the school district, some retailers and other employers, and various nonprofits have imposed their own restrictions, up to and including closing their doors temporarily at various times.
Given its traditional role in managing quick-to-emerge, potentially dangerous situations, the Emergency Services Council’s responsibility for coordinating the public response to the pandemic and implementing policies to keep residents and visitors safe went largely unquestioned at first. But after living with the peaks and valleys of COVID for an extended period of time, a growing number of Kodiak residents are getting more vocal in their questioning of the ESC’s role. In various settings they have said they want to know how much power the ESC has when it comes to managing the response to this long-term public health emergency — and whether COVID protocols should be something that a group of non-elected officials should be dealing with at all.
“I think that people are very grateful that someone is taking the lead for all of this,” said Mike Tvenge, head of the ESC, in a Tuesday interview with KDM. “Whether they are getting tired of the message or not, I am very certain that there are a lot of grateful people out there that are taking it seriously and glad that the ESC is responding to the virus.”
The Emergency Services Council was initially created by the City Council and the Kodiak Island Borough in the 1990s, and re-established at the end of 2017. Both the borough and the city council passed codes that determine the make-up, responsibilities and powers of the council.
The purpose and powers of the council are open-ended. The borough’s code states the purpose of the ESC is “to provide for the preparation and implementation of plans for emergency services for persons and property within the city of Kodiak and the Kodiak Island Borough in the event of a disaster and to provide an organization for the coordinator of emergency services functions with all public agencies, affected private persons, corporations, and organizations.”
The codes have outlined a number of definitions relating to this statement. Among them is the definition of disaster, which includes a “public calamity” that is on the same level as earthquakes, tsunamis, extraordinary fires, floods, storms, etc.
The council is cautious about forcing people to abide by these regulations. Two weeks ago, it decided to revise the language in its mask mandate so businesses and building owners no longer bore the responsibility of enforcing it.
“Are we now dictating everything that businesses should do if they are now acting in ways... that we do not align with?” USCG Base Capt. Edward Hernaez asked rhetorically at the Sept. 9 meeting. “The Emergency Services Council mandates masks, but we shouldn’t get into the weeds of what private businesses should be doing beyond that point.”
Many business owners requested that the Emergency Services Council institute a mask mandate so they could enforce their own mask policies without appearing to be the “bad guy.” But after the policy was enacted, Kodiak City Mayor and ESC member Pat Branson received complaints from many people about it. Specifically, business and building owners were upset that they were being asked to enforce the mask mandate, she said.
Of course, not everyone agrees with those complaints.
“I don’t have any experience in government and so my understanding is that the ESC has similar bodies around the state for doing what our ESC is doing,” Kodiak resident Aaren Ellsworth said. “This is very much in line for what is typical and expected in our communities in Alaska.”
Although the Emergency Operations Center has graphs that track when cases are diagnosed, it does not track the total number of known active cases over time. Ellsworth has unofficially taken on that task. She has been tracking COVID cases and posting graphs with that data on Facebook for over a year now.
Ellsworth modeled her current graphing system after one being used by the Ketchikan Incident Command System. She believes that Ketchikan is responding to the pandemic effectively by instituting data-informed policies and thinks Kodiak should be doing the same.
The Ketchikan Incident Command System diagnoses the borough’s different risk levels by determining defined case numbers and rates of transmission. The preventative measures that are put in place, such as mask mandates and limiting the number of people in indoor settings, correlate with Ketchikan borough’s risk level. Kodiak also assesses its risk levels, and has been in yellow for several weeks now. But the ESC has been slower to reissue mandates. It has said it wants to factor in considerations such as type of spread, instead of just the total number of cases, before making mandate changes.
There are people in Kodiak who don’t think that the Emergency Services Council should be responsible for the COVID response at all. At the City Council’s Sept. 7 work session, Dan Rohrer, owner of both Kodiak Subways and former Borough Assembly mayor, stated that COVID may be the “new normal” and questioned whether the response should fall under the purview of the Emergency Services Council.
At the work session, Rohrer complained that the mask mandate was created without enough input from the public. Two days later, at the Emergency Services Council meeting, Branson pushed for there to be more direct communication between the general public and the ESC.
Branson floated the idea of adding City Council and Borough Assembly members to the Emergency Services Council, citing communications problems. The idea was swiftly countered by the Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts and Emergency Services Coordinator Jim Mullican. Roberts was concerned that if the Emergency Services Council became too large, it could no longer operate effectively. And Mullican was firm in his stance that the Emergency Services Council should only include people with direct authority over their respective groups so that they can instruct the response. This is especially important after natural disasters occur, according to Mullican.
Although Mullican is not on the ESC, as the city’s fire chief he is in charge of coordinating the response. The Emergency Services Council creates the policy for the response and the Emergency Operations Center is in charge of communicating it to the public. To that end, the EOC releases daily COVID updates.
The only elected officials on the Emergency Services Council are Branson and Roberts. Currently, the head of the Emergency Services Council is Tvenge, which is mandated by code because of his role as city manager. In addition to Tvenge, other unelected members of the seven-person ESC are the borough manager position, Hernaez, USCG Air Station Kodiak Capt. Nathan Coulter and Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Dan Blizzard.
Between Saturday and Monday, 75 people tested positive for COVID in Kodiak, according to the Emergency Operations Center. Statewide, 2,108 people were diagnosed with COVID over that period of time, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
In fact, Alaska has the highest daily rate of COVID infections per capita in the nation, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Due to severe staffing shortages and the high number of COVID cases, the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage started rationing treatment last week, according to the ADN.
Despite those numbers, Tvenge believes that Kodiak is on the right path.
“We’re seeing compliance with the mask mandate not only in businesses but also in work places,” Tvenge said. “We’re doing collectively what we need to do to slow down the virus.”
As ESC members already know their actions will not be able to please everyone, and because of that the debate over its authority and its future is likely to continue.