The daily number for known COVID cases in Kodiak has stayed in the low-hundred range since the island’s second surge began in mid-July.
Even though numbers have settled into a new normal range — 116 known active cases as of Friday, with 19 new cases reported on that day — the situation has become serious enough for the Emergency Operations Council to issue a mask mandate, which it did on Friday.
The mandate adopted some of stricter COVID guidelines that were in place earlier this year after the last surge — in early December — but had been incrementally relaxed since late spring. The ruling is meant to prevent Kodiak’s health-care system from being overwhelmed.
Even though there are currently enough empty hospital beds in Kodiak — only two were being used for COVID patients as of Friday afternoon — there is a growing shortage of beds in hospitals on the mainland and Lower 48, especially the West Coast, where most Kodiak patients would be transferred in the event of a COVID emergency.
That would make it difficult, although not impossible, to transfer patients off-island if they needed a higher degree of medical care, said Meagan Christiansen, a spokeswoman for the EOC.
There are 25 beds alloted to COVID care at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, but if need be, it also can set up 200 cots in an off-site location within a day, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported recently.
The current upswing of COVID cases nationwide is expected to peak in October, which will further decrease the number of available beds on the Mainland until that time. That timeframe also coincides with the typical start of flu season which, on its own, already taxes the health-care system, said Amy Corder, incident commander for Providence.
The problem extends beyond treating COVID. The pandemic has overwhelmed the health-care system across the country in many areas, making it more difficult in those areas to treat other types of ailments and injuries, according to Corder.
The solution? Take more aggressive actions to curb the spread of COVID in the first place.
The Kodiak mask mandate stipulates that people over the age of five must wear masks that cover both their nose and mouth when they are indoors or in public places. There are some exceptions to this rule. People can be unmasked if they are eating or drinking, working in an enclosed environment, or have physical or mental disabilities that make them incapable of wearing a mask.
Bill Roberts, mayor of the Kodiak Island Borough, predicts that the mask mandate will have a minimal impact on many people’s day-to-day lives.
Many places where crowds gather already had mask mandates. Alaska Airlines and the local airport never stopped requiring masks after the initial outbreak, and Kodiak College already had a mask mandate. Kodiak’s K-12 school district already plans to start the school year with a mask mandate when classrooms open later this week.
As for private businesses, both Roberts and Christiansen believe this mandate will help. Many business owners wanted to institute a mask mandate but faced pushback from their clients and customers, according to Christiansen.
It gives businesses a reference so they won’t have to defend the policy to customers, Christiansen said, adding: “They can say, ‘The EOC put a mask mandate into effect so there’s nothing I can do about it.’”
In total, there have been 1,572 known cases of COVID on Kodiak, as well as 69 hospitalizations and five deaths due to the virus. The leading cause of COVID spread has been close contact with people who have been infected with the virus, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported.
“It’s hurting everybody so we have to step up and enforce it,” said Roberts. “If people don’t want to be responsible, we’re going to have to force them to be responsible.”
Neither Roberts nor Christiansen believe that the decision to scale back on mask requirements was responsible for the current spike in COVID. Roberts attributes the spread of COVID to the Delta variant, while Christiansen thinks that private gatherings are what have been causing infections.
“A mask mandate promotes people being more mindful of their interactions with other people,” Christiansen said. “It can also reduce transmission from asymptomatic people.”
Corder warns that masks alone will not slow the transmission of COVID. Face masks need to be coupled with other mitigation measures such as vaccines, hand washing and social distancing.