Petersburg’s COVID response team seeks mask mandate amid surge in local cases

A sign encouraging COVID-19 precautions
A sign encouraging COVID-19 precautions last winter in Petersburg. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

A Petersburg leadership team responding to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is imploring the public for help. Cases were up to about 30 as of Wednesday. The team is asking residents to get vaccinated if they can, mask when indoors, get tested, stay home if they’re sick and limit gatherings.

The team will also bring a masking mandate before the borough assembly on next week.

Local officials are worried about a lot — schools being closed, local businesses being affected and limited healthcare services.

“Well, the cases keep coming in,” said public health nurse Erin Michael.

Michael does a lot of contact tracing.

“Obviously, we’re seeing cases in the schools and that has a ripple effect,” she said. “It affects daycares because they may have siblings or family members that go to daycares that are close contacts. It affects other businesses, the borough.”

Petersburg’s middle and high schools have been operating remotely because of cases among staff and students.

“We are buried right now in contact tracing and testing,” said Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter.

This year, the State of Alaska’s Department of Education tasked school districts with contact tracing for cases among staff and students.

Some of Petersburg’s cases have been students coming to school with symptoms. Others have been caught through required testing of athletes who are competing.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Kludt-Painter said. “So the activities and actions that take place outside of school time, in addition to what happens in the school, impact us directly.”

The Petersburg Medical Center is also dedicating staff to testing on top of their usual work load. They’re running asymptomatic pop-up clinics to deal with the surge.

Like other hospitals, PMC is also giving monoclonal antibody treatment to some COVID-19 patients. The treatment includes lab-made antibodies that help people’s immune systems fight the virus. PMC gave out 14 treatments just last week.

Jennifer Bryner, PMC’s head nurse, says they have about ten doses left but getting more is in question.

“As of the other day the State had 16 doses on their shelf and they were sending them to hospitals who had already run out. So, that supply is very limited,” Bryner said.

If a Petersburg patient did need a medevac, that could be a problem.

“It is very strained,” said Liz Bacom, PMC’s infection prevention manager. She says the big hospitals that usually take medevac patients can’t right now because they are too full.  “It means that if you need an appendectomy, we may have trouble getting you some place because these hospitals aren’t able to accept you. If you have COVID, you may have to stay here longer. We may not be able to provide the same level of care that they could provide you at Providence.”

Alaska hospitals are running on crisis standards of care, meaning that health care workers are no longer providing the same kind of care for all patients. They prioritize care according to what’s available.

PMC has not activated this yet, but CEO Phil Hofstetter says it could be the future.

“If we don’t get our hands around this, we’re not going to be able to — we’re just going to be in a crisis mode,” he said.

The response team is requesting that the borough assembly discuss implementing a masking mandate and limiting gathering sizes.

Sandy Dixon is the Borough’s Emergency Manager and also part of the response team.

“People want things to remain open and operating. It’s not going to happen unless we all pull together and do our part,” said Dixon. “So, people who are dismissing the COVID mitigations or who think it’s ridiculous or that it’s a punishment, please think again because you are or it is impacting the rest of the community and our ability to operate safely.”

The Petersburg Borough had an unenforced masking mandate from November through May. The language allowed for many exceptions.

Previous articleOfficials warn of landslide danger as fall storm heads for Southeast Alaska
Next articleAs US and Canada uncover Indigenous school history, survivors, their children and allies mark Orange Shirt day in Juneau
Angela Denning is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.

No posts to display