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’This is a wake-up call’: Cordova mandates shots or testing for city staff as Southeast faces case surge

Juneau and Sitka see COVID-19 cases spike as well
Looking back at the city from Juneau's Seawalk on July 27, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska.
Looking back at the city from Juneau's Seawalk on July 27, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 4:35 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Several Southeast Alaska communities are considering tougher COVID-19 mitigation measures to curb the spread of the virus as cruise ship operators report cases among fully-vaccinated passengers.

Helen Howarth, Cordova city manager, said starting next Monday, city employees will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing for the virus. The decision was made by Howarth after the city’s dispatch center was stretched thin last week.

“We didn’t have enough people on the ground,” she said. “We don’t have a deep bench to provide that emergency response and I was looking for alternatives outside of Cordova.”

Howarth said some dispatchers were at home with the virus. Others had to work long hours overtime to cover the gap and some part-time dispatchers had to be called in.

It worked out last week, Howarth said, but she called officials from the City of Valdez in case Cordova’s emergency dispatch center needs back up. She said the vaccination or weekly testing requirement for city employees is to ensure critical services are not interrupted by the virus.

Cordova, like much of Southeast Alaska, had been experiencing low case counts for months. The ongoing outbreak saw a seafood processor close its doors last week as life in Cordova had been returning to normal.

“This is a wake-up call,” Howarth said.

Sitka has an unprecedented 255 active cases and the Sitka Assembly is set to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday evening to discuss how to curb the spread of the virus. The agenda for that meeting has not been published online yet, but Melissa Henshaw, a spokesperson for the city and borough, said assembly members are set to debate implementing Sitka’s first mask mandate.

Discussions about face masks come as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new masking guidelines on Tuesday. Officials across Alaska are digesting that guidance to determine what that should mean in their communities.

Craig Warren, Sitka’s incident commander, said he feels like a broken record preaching the same advice for the past 18 months to curb COVID-19 case counts.

“Wear your mask, get vaccinated, keep socially distancing,” he said.

Juneau is also seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases from the highly-transmissible delta variant, officials said. The city reported 44 cases from Saturday through Monday.

The latest 14-day lookback saw Juneau record 150 new COVID-19 cases over that time period, the highest rate of transmission since the pandemic began. Robert Barr, Juneau’s deputy city manager, said 30% of those cases were among the fully-vaccinated population.

Over 80% of eligible Juneau residents have received at least one shot which is one of the highest vaccination rates in Alaska. Officials say symptoms have been notably milder for vaccinated residents coming down with the virus.

“The vaccine is still very, very good at preventing you from getting very, very sick,” Barr said.

Juneau officials are considering whether to elevate the city’s COVID-19 alert level to “high” which would see a face mask mandate reimplemented indoors regardless of vaccination status. Discussions about increasing Juneau’s alert level are occurring every day, Barr said.

A mask mandate is in place in Juneau’s city buildings and for unvaccinated residents indoors in public. Vaccinated residents are strongly recommended to wear masks publicly indoors. Similar measures are in place in Sitka and Cordova.

The Juneau Assembly will hold a special meeting on Wednesday evening on COVID-19 mitigation measures and whether to extend them until Oct. 31. The city’s current virus measures are set to expire at the end of the month.

Three separate cruise ships sailing in Southeast Alaska recorded at least one case of COVID-19 over the past week.

One fully-vaccinated passenger aboard the Celebrity Millennium came down with the virus on Sunday and flew home from Juneau. Seven fully-vaccinated passengers on the Wilderness Explorer, operated by UnCruise, also recently contracted COVID-19.

According to the cruise operator, all seven passengers have shown “cold-like” symptoms, but another sailing this weekend had been canceled “out of an abundance of caution.”

Juneau also reported on Monday that one additional passenger aboard the American Constellation tested positive. That cruise ship was the subject of an outbreak earlier this month and has a total of 16 cases associated with it, according to the release from Juneau.

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