Signs on Saturday, March 28, 2020, at the main entrance to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska, warn visitors not to enter until they have been met by hospital staff. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Signs on Saturday, March 28, 2020, at the main entrance to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska, warn visitors not to enter until they have been met by hospital staff. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

2 new COVID-19 cases on southern Kenai Peninsula

South Peninsula Hospital relaxes visitation after weeks of low community spread

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported two new COVID-19 cases on the southern Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday.

The two cases are in the “Other South” category that is used by DHSS for communities on the southern peninsula (from Ninilchik south) that have populations of less than 1,000 people. This announcement from the state comes after South Peninsula Hospital decided to relax some of its rules regarding visitors, citing several weeks of low community spread of COVID-19.

There is also a new case in Soldotna, for a total of three new COVID-19 cases on the peninsula Wednesday. New cases of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus are reported by the state daily by noon, and reflect the number of cases that get reported to the state the previous day.

In all, the state reported 52 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday — 50 for Alaska residents and two for nonresidents.

Even with the announcement of the two new southern peninsula cases, COVID-19 activity has slowed on the southern peninsula in recent weeks. South Peninsula Hospital, one of several testing locations from Ninilchik south, as of Tuesday had not had a positive COVID-19 test result since late August. This is notable in part because, as hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro said at Monday’s Homer City Council meeting, testing has actually picked up at the hospital recently.

The hospital is now taking about 50 swabs per day, Ferraro told the council during her regular update as part of the Homer Unified Command. She attributed part of this increase in testing to the fact that school is back in session.

Due to the low amount of risk posed to the southern peninsula at this time, Ferraro announced Monday that the hospital will now allow up to two visitors to accompany patients who are hospitalized in acute care.

“That means that hospitalized patients in acute care who are not COVID-positive and not under investigation for COVID are now permitted up to two visitors at a time by invitation only,” Ferraro told the city council.

All visitors to the hospital must have a mask on, she said. Visitors also have to either be from the same household as the patient they are visiting, or part of their social bubble of close contacts.

Patients who are under investigation for COVID-19, as well as those in obstetrics, can have one visitor for the duration of their stay. Emergency room, surgery and radiology patients can have one visitor for the duration of their visit.

All visitors must still be screened at the door.

The hospital’s Longterm Care wing remains closed to visitors.

“But I have to spend 30 seconds giving a shout out to the many who have gone out of their way to visit and entertain from the lawn and the parking lot,” Ferraro said at the council meeting. “Even the Homer Animal Friends dog training class often conducts their classes on the lawn with a very engaged audience of residents watching out windows and from the deck. So thank you to the great community for doing that.”

In a later interview, Ferraro explained that an infection prevention team at the hospital keeps a close eye on the COVID-19 case count and testing data.

“Based on continual review of those numbers, the team really felt that the risk level was low, so we decided to roll out our visitation guidelines based on minor risk,” Ferraro said.

She stressed that the visitation rules can change at any time if the risk of community spread of COVID-19 gets too high again. Still, Ferraro said it was important for the hospital to take this step.

“The support of friends and family is so important in health and healing,” she said. “That’s certainly one of the drivers in opening up visitation when we can.”

Ferraro also announced two additional changes at the hospital in her update to the city council. One is that the hospital is now processing antibody blood tests in house, whereas before they were being performed at SPH and sent out of state for processing.

Processing the antibody tests within the hospital will shorten the turnaround time for results to one day, Ferraro said. It’s also “great to use local professionals and resources” to process those tests rather than relying on an Outside source.

Finally, Ferraro said the hospital will be moving the location of its free COVID-19 testing this fall. Currently, testing is done by hospital staff who walk outside to meet patients who drive up to the hospital entrance in their vehicles, where a swab is taken.

This process will be hard to maintain once fall and winter bring with them wind, rain and snow, Ferraro said. For example, the staff performing the swabs have to don personal protective equipment for each trip out to a vehicle. If the PPE can be properly hung up and preserved, it can be used again. The presence of rain and snow will make that nearly impossible, Ferraro said.

The hospital’s relaxed visitation policy is another factor in needing to move the testing.

“We expect it to get more congested with more people visiting and using the entrance,” Ferraro said.

The exact site of the new COVID-19 testing location is not confirmed, but Ferraro said the hospital’s goal is to move testing to another location still on the South Peninsula Hospital campus by Oct. 6.

Statewide case count

Statewide, there are now 6,444 total cases of COVID-19 in Alaska residents, and 921 total nonresident cases, according to the DHSS coronavirus response hub website. Of those, 4,202 resident cases are still active, and 712 nonresident cases are still active.

So far, 2,198 Alaska residents are recovered or presumed recovered, as well as 209 recovered nonresidents.

Since the start of the pandemic, 250 Alaska residents have been hospitalized for COVID-19, along with six nonresidents. Those numbers include people who have since recovered or have since died. According to the data hub, there are 39 people currently being hospitalized for COVID-19, and six people being hospitalized under investigation for possibly having COVID-19.

To date, the state has reported 44 deaths of Alaska residents that have been tied to the illness.

Of the new cases reported statewide on Wednesday, there are 18 in Anchorage, 12 in Fairbanks, seven in North Pole, two each in Palmer and the “Other South” category on the Kenai Peninsula, and one each in Wasilla, Chugiak, Eagle River, Soldotna, Utqiagvik, Kotzebue, Juneau, the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula Borough.

Of the two new nonresident cases announced Wednesday, one is in Kotzebue and one is unknown.

As of Tuesday, the seven-day average positivity rate for the state of Alaska is 2.45%. Alaska has performed 408,564 COVID-19 tests.

Testing

In Homer, testing continues to be available from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at South Peninsula Hospital’s main entrance as well as through SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at the hospital at 907-235-0235 and at the SVT clinics at 907-226-2228.

In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The testing is only for those traveling, symptomatic, needing testing for medical procedures, or with a known exposure after seven days. Only 20 tests will be offered per day. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

On the central peninsula, testing is available at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice. Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Seward, Seward Community Health Center, Glacier Family Medicine and North Star Health Clinic.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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