No COVID-19 outbreak in Haines after disaster, despite evacuations and less social distancing

A white woman with a blue mask holds her hands together under her chin
Vanessa Salmon, a social worker, listens to evacuees ask questions of city officials on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. Some 50 families were displaced because of landslides. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Haines officials had many concerns over the past few weeks. Relief workers poured in from around the state to assist with the Dec. 2 landslide disaster, which led to fears of an outbreak of COVID-19 at the same time, since some 50 households had to evacuate. So far, that hasn’t happened.

In terms of COVID-19 cases, Haines, Skagway and Klukwan have been relatively lucky compared to the rest of the state and the nation. There have been only a handful of symptomatic cases and no fatalities or hospitalizations.

But when a once-in-200-year storm hit Haines, causing devastating landslides and infrastructure damage, officials feared that would change.

“We have a lot of support coming in from outside of our community. Remember, there’s a lot of COVID outside of our community,” said Interim Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton reminded a crowded room full of evacuees and volunteers in the early days of the emergency.

“So when you see people you don’t know, maybe stay a little further away from them, make sure you have a mask on. We really want to keep you guys safe,” Fullerton said. “But we have these overlapping emergencies. So we have to be very vigilant.”

Nearly three weeks later, public health officials say so far, so good.

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“We were very fearful that we would be we would be seeing COVID outbreaks,” said Haines Clinic Director Stephanie Pattison. She said conditions were ripe for the coronavirus to spread through the stricken town.

“There was a lot of communal eating with those who were displaced. Meetings were packed. Social distancing was not able to be followed strictly during this time. Just because of the amount of people who are displaced,” Pattison said.

Only three Haines residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since the Dec. 2 disaster, according to state data. But according to the Haines Emergency Operations Center, those people simply have Haines addresses — none are actually in town.