Ketchikan wrestling meet linked to 23 COVID cases in Southeast Alaska

A high school from the outside
At least COVID-19 23 cases have been linked to a wrestling tournament held alongside another tournament at Ketchikan High School in late April. (KRBD)

New details about a COVID-19 outbreak associated with a regional wrestling tournament held in Ketchikan show at least 23 cases linked to the event, according to public health officials.

The Bill Weiss Tournament is an annual event for high school wrestlers and their families from around the region. Public health officials say people in five of the seven communities which participated — Craig, Klawock, Sitka, Wrangell and Ketchikan — tested positive for COVID-19 after attending. Held April 23 and 24, the tournament coincided with a second regional sports event happening at Ketchikan High School.

Craig parent Loni Lingley traveled to the tournament with her son. She acknowledged sports in a pandemic carries a level of risk. But she thought the Ketchikan wrestling tournament would be safe.

“Because of the paperwork sent home and the lengths went into making sure all our kids were tested and knowing that every community coming to the tournament would be tested and that we would be wearing masks and temperatures would be checked,” Lingley said in a phone interview Wednesday.

She spoke to KRBD from Alicia Roberts Medical Center in the Prince of Wales Island community of Klawock, where she was being tested for COVID-19.

Ketchikan emergency officials said Tuesday five people at the Kayhi tournament were infected and contagious during the indoor event. The regional governing body for school sports issued a formal warning to the high school last week, saying school officials did not test their athletes prior to competition and didn’t enforce a mask requirement. Ketchikan’s school district says it’s investigating.

Lingley was unaware at the time that the Ketchikan wrestlers hadn’t been tested for COVID-19, but said she noticed other irregularities.

“I was quite shocked that people were walking around. They weren’t wearing their masks, they weren’t social-distanced; the only people I noticed were the people from out of town,” she said.

While there was a table set up to check temperatures and screen for symptoms, she said no one was at the table to give the screening when she arrived.

State public health nurse Arizona Jacobs told Ketchikan’s school board Wednesday that 13 Ketchikan High School employees and students have since tested positive.

“All but one was infectious and present in school for one to six days before beginning quarantine,” Jacobs said.

Three of the 13 people who tested positive were at the school and infectious for at least a full week, Ketchikan emergency officials say. Roughly 8% of the student body is currently in quarantine.

It’s unclear how many people were potentially exposed as a result of the tournament. Jacobs told the board contact tracing for cases which arose outside the school is still underway.

“Just because of the case count and the number of contacts these cases have had, which is substantially more than has been in the past, it’s going to take some time before we can get around to all of them,” Jacobs said.

She said the outbreak overwhelmed local contact tracers, requiring help from the state. Jacobs said some close contacts may not be notified if they were exposed more than 10 days ago because their quarantine period would have already ended.

Some state health officials were on hand for Wednesday’s virtual school board meeting, including Coleman Cutchins with the Public Health Division. He told the board one option for containing the outbreak was mass COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“Well, use of universal masking helps keep schools open,” Cutchins said. “And then when you’re having cases spread, robust, universal screening testing — those are the people that are asymptomatic, and then pulling out your positives — also really helps keep people in school and keep communities open.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, it’s not clear whether Ketchikan’s school district will go forward with mass testing.

Lingley says she’s looking for reassurance that the district will do better in the future.

“I’m all about the kids being in sports. I want the sports to continue,” she said. “I just don’t want it to be negligent. If they have to test, they have to test. I mean, it’s not that hard.”

Ketchikan High School closed Wednesday after the tournament and reopened the following Monday. Then it closed again Tuesday. It will remain shut through at least Friday, with students studying remotely. All after-school activities are canceled through at least next Monday.

So far, impacts to other Ketchikan-area schools have been limited. Ketchikan’s middle school, alternative high school and elementary schools look set to stay fully open for now.

Ketchikan’s school board left that decision up to the acting superintendent, who told KRBD Wednesday afternoon she’s working with school administrators to chart a path forward. A notice posted on Ketchikan High School’s website Wednesday evening said in-person learning would resume Monday with the school at half capacity.