Denali Borough COVID-19 spikes shuts down in-person school

A blocky school house with a circular logo.
Denali Borough School District officials have halted in-classroom instruction at Tri-Valley Valley School and the Denali Borough School District’s two other schoolhouses for at least one week. (Credit Denali Borough)

The Denali Borough closed its offices to walk-in business and its classrooms to in-school instruction Monday after five cases of COVID-19 in the borough were reported last week.

Mayor Clay Walker says local officials decided to restrict public access to Denali Borough and school district offices and classrooms for at least one week after an uptick in cases last week nearly doubled the number of reported COVID cases in the borough – from six to 11.

“That was the biggest spike that had seen thus far in the seven months that we have been dealing with, reacting to and trying to minimize the spread of COVID here,” he said Monday.

The test results prompted school district officials to transition to High Risk-level precautions – mainly reverting to teaching students online, instead of in the classroom. Walker says borough offices remain open, but he says residents will have to pick up the phone or go online to get help.

“Folks can call,” he said. “Folks can e-mail. Folks can set up an appointment for service.”

Meanwhile, the borough and school district will maintain such precautions as social distancing, wearing facemasks and frequent handwashing and home and workplace cleaning. The mayor said Monday the Denali Borough has been lucky so far with the coronavirus. And he says it remains one of the least COVID-impacted areas in Alaska.

“We were one of the last counties in the entire country to not have both a confirmed case and to not have any community transmission at this point or as of last week,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible, actually.”

Walker says the borough has stepped up testing since getting last week’s results that four residents and one nonresident visitor had tested positive. He says local public health officials are closely tracking the test results – in part to determine whether they reveal any cases of community spread. Those are cases for which efforts like contact tracing are unable to establish where or from whom a covid victim contracted the disease.

“It’s possible through contact tracing that it could be determined that community transmission still isn’t happening here,” Walker said. “That these cases maybe did originate from outside the borough, and we can still safely say that we’ve had no community transmission here.”

Borough officials believe many if not most local covid cases come from people who are from elsewhere, outside of the borough.

Walker says if further testing and other analysis indicate community spread isn’t occurring locally – and if last week’s uptick flattens out – the borough Health Level Advisory Committee may consider reverting to lower-risk precautions in its weekly meeting. The next is scheduled for this Friday.