"We’re no longer in a bubble" — virus cases surge while restrictions remain limited

Oct 22, 2020

A Department of Health and Social Services graph shows the upward trend in cases on the peninsula.
Credit Department of Health and Social Services

There were 218 active COVID-19 cases reported in the Kenai Peninsula Borough as of Wednesday, not including the positive test results that are currently being processed. That’s a third of all cases the borough has seen since the pandemic began.

The case rate for the last 14 days — or the number of cases per 100,000 people — is 236 on the peninsula. In Anchorage, the 14-day case rate is about twice that, with Fairbanks close behind.

The case rate in Juneau is 218 and in the Mat-Su it’s 206. Case rates are also high on the North Slope and in the Y-K Delta region.

According to the state’s COVID-19 hub, a great deal of cases on the peninsula are still being investigated by contact tracers. But Nurse Manager Leslie Felts said it seems most of the cases are from community spread, as opposed to travel.

“Most Alaskans are getting the virus from somebody that they work with or socialize with, or go to school with," she said. "And a lot of times there isn’t a clear source. We’re not always able to identify where they got the virus. We know that there are social gatherings, community events and church services, other social venues that people are going to while they’re contagious,but before they knew that they had the virus.”

Felts did not say if there were any large events recently that have aided in the spread of the virus. A representative from the state’s Department of Health and Social Services said that the state only shares information about location and type of outbreak if the publication of that information could mitigate health risks.

It’s not hard to see how community spread might occur on the peninsula. For a long time, the virus felt far away and people’s guards were down.

Now case counts are climbing, a virus that once felt far away is beginning to hit home. 

“I’m in a position now where with the number of cases that we have in the state, I know people that have it, that recovered from it, that are sick with it," said Kenai City Councilman Henry Knackstedt at last night’s meeting. "And I didn’t before. I didn’t know anyone that knew anyone who did.”

A spokesman from the hospital confirmed that there are currently three coronavirus cases at Central Peninsula Hospital.
Credit Central Peninsula Hospital

At the meeting, City Manager Paul Ostrander said a city employee tested positive for the virus last weekend. He added that Central Peninsula Hospital currently has three active COVID-19 cases.

“We’re no longer in a bubble," he said. "We were in a bubble for a long time, we were probably one of the safest places in the nation to be, not the case anymore.”

Many events are going ahead as planned. Several local bars have Halloween parties scheduled for the end of the month and various indoor holiday markets are on the calendar for November and December.

Some indoor events are being held at reduced capacity, like the joint Kenai-Soldotna chamber of commerce weekly luncheons.

Knackstedt suggested it might be time to request visitors to city buildings wear masks. Mask-wearing is suggested, not required, in municipal buildings and in general across the borough, a suggestion the borough and cities recently reiterated through a joint resolution.

Knackstedt said he does not think masks should be mandatory because the process of monitoring compliance could be costly in more ways than one.

“I think it’s a line that you cross when you make something an absolute rule then you have to enforce it. There's a cost and responsibility involved," he said. "So who’s going to be the one that insists that somebody do this? There could be an angry person, some kind of altercation. We don’t want to go there. Or we’re going to call the police and take them away from their important duties to enforce something like that.”

Still, Knackstedt said he thinks the city should strongly suggest folks wear masks in its building.

“I just felt that as the curve is rising, that you have to get ahead of it a little more," he said. "And I felt that the city should be a little more aggressive in requesting — in a polite way if you will — in requesting, in strongly requesting that people wear a mask.

Ostrander said he would be in support of more strongly suggesting mask-wearing in city hall.

The potential for mask enforcement differs across governments. The borough does not have the ability to institute a mask mandate, since it is a second-class borough and does not have healthcare powers. Neither do the cities of Homer or Seldovia, which are first-class cities. Ditto Kachemak, a second-class city.

Kenai, Soldotna and Seward, as home rule cities, could. Seward instituted a mask mandate this summer, though that mandate has since ended.

Many cases are still under investigation. Nurse Manager Leslie Felts said what public health teams know about active cases is limited by how much cases are willing to share with contact tracers.
Credit Department of Health and Social Services

Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said the city is leaving decisions that would broadly affect the public to the city council. She said council members have expressed preference for encouraging masks rather than making them mandatory. 

Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney also said he does not think the council will change out the suggestion for a mandate.

Alaska cities currently requiring masks include Anchorage, Juneau, Tenakee Springs and Angoon.

Masks are required by students and staff at Kenai Peninsula Borough schools, which are currently closed to in-person learning. Just yesterday the district extended 100 percent remote learning for students on the central and southern peninsulas at least through next week due to a continuation of high community rates.

Some local businesses have had to temporarily close their doors due to COVID-19. A message on the Yoga Yurt Facebook page earlier this week said they were closing temporarily due to a COVID exposure. A message on The Flats Facebook page said an employee at the restaurant tested positive for the virus Tuesday.

Luke Thibodeau, the owner of The Flats, said all his employees are getting tested. He said his staff started wearing masks a few weeks ago, when cases started rising again, and is glad they did because it may have prevented some of the spread. A few staff have tested positive since the initial positive result, he said. 

Thibodeau said he is not sure when The Flats will reopen.