As COVID-19 spikes in Alaska, Kenai Peninsula emerges as virus hotspot

A view of the spit in the southern Kenai Peninsula town of Homer. Homer is one of multiple Kenai communities where cases of COVID-19 have spiked in recent weeks. (KBBI)

COVID-19 has spread quickly in recent weeks on the Kenai Peninsula, which now has a per capita infection rate that’s three times the one found in Anchorage with 62 active cases as of Tuesday, according to state data.

While the Kenai transforms into a tourism and fishing hub during the summer, officials there don’t blame the high case rate on any particular factor — though they say some cases are tied to residents who continue to gather in group settings in spite of public health recommendations against that.

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In recent weeks, state health authorities have been forced to enlist workers from other parts of Alaska for the painstaking work of tracking and monitoring the close contacts of sick people on the Kenai, said Leslie Felts, a state nurse manager. As of Wednesday, the state was monitoring 300 people there, she added. (That number includes both confirmed cases and the “close contacts” of those people.)

“Early on, Ketchikan had a lot of activity when we first started down this road with COVID,” Felts said. “Then there was some activity up in the Fairbanks area. Now, it seems like it’s our turn down here on the Kenai Peninsula.”

At 16,000 square miles, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is roughly the same size as Massachusetts and New Jersey combined, with rural fishing communities, Alaska Native villages, tourism destinations and decades-old oil and gas infrastructure.

The Kenai’s infections appear to be concentrated on the southern part of the peninsula, where Homer has 18 active cases — a half-dozen of which appear to stem from the recent landing of the state ferry Tustumena, which had an outbreak of the disease among crew.

There are 19 more active cases that the state lists in the “other South” portion of the peninsula. That’s a catch-all category for communities in the southern part of the borough that have fewer than 1,000 people.

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The state says that identifying those small communities with active cases could jeopardize people’s privacy, and officials wouldn’t release any details or even make broad characterizations about those “other” cases. But health-care providers chose to run pop-up testing sites in several southern Kenai locations last week.

Those include the village of Seldovia, across Kachemak Bay from Homer, as well as Nikolaevsk, another isolated village inhabited largely by members of a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church known as the Old Believers.

Seldovia’s city manager didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. In Nikolaevsk, “the village is choosing not to comment on the situation,” Nikki Place, the president of the local community council, said in a text message.

Health officials and emergency managers say that they haven’t seen any consistent themes connecting the cases spread across the Kenai, though late last month, Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said there were clusters that appeared to be associated with “some celebratory gatherings that took place.”

“We have pockets from people in their work setting, in church settings, restaurants, indoor and outdoor gatherings,” said Felts, the public health nurse manager. “It’s pretty broad.”

Another thing that could help explain the southern peninsula’s higher caseload is more widespread testing.

At the early part of the pandemic, Homer’s South Peninsula Hospital was only testing patients with symptoms, at a rate of about six or seven a day, said Ryan Smith, the hospital’s chief executive.

As commercial fisheries started ramping up about two weeks ago, the state sent a Cepheid testing machine, which has good accuracy and can process about four tests an hour.

That’s allowed the hospital to cast a much broader net, and it’s now collecting about 150 samples a day, Smith said. That includes testing patients with symptoms, plus those in the emergency room, along with employees — six of whom have tested positive, said Smith.

The hospital has also worked with partners to offer off-site testing, said Smith. Tests have been collected on Homer’s spit, at a site out the road leading east from town, and in the community of the Anchor Point to the north — and each of those efforts has yielded positive tests, he added.

“We’re going to where the people are, versus forcing them to come, to drive up to the hospital to get tested,” he said.

By contrast, the Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, which serves about two-thirds of the Kenai’s population, has only been able to collect about 35 samples a day, said spokesman Bruce Richards.

The hospital has struggled to put widespread, reliable testing in place, and lacks a machine onsite that’s reliable, Richards said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough, which owns the hospital, is planning to buy a $400,000 “high-capacity” testing machine with its $37.5 million share of federal coronavirus relief money. But delivery is expected to take at least four months, and in the mean time, the hospital has to have its test kits driven three hours to Anchorage for processing there.

Those current hurdles to widespread testing suggest to Richards, the hospital spokesman, that the central Kenai has less of a window into the spread of COVID-19 than the southern part of the peninsula.

“Are there people walking around that are positive? There are. The only way to find out is rapid, ubiquitous testing and that’s what our goal is,” he said. “The more testing you do, the better a picture you’re going to find.”

For now, in spite of the Kenai’s sharp rise in cases, health-care professionals aren’t calling for a return to stricter social distancing mandates.

As of Wednesday, there were no COVID-19 patients hospitalized in either Kenai or Soldotna. And Smith, the Homer hospital executive, said his facility has spent three months equipping itself for when cases do start to arrive.

“I don’t think there’s any level of panic, and going back to any kind of a lockdown doesn’t seem realistic,” he said. “We feel like we’re pretty well prepared to deal with the activity that we’re seeing right now.”