The status of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kenai Peninsula is a tale of three cities.
In the city of Seward, a recent outbreak has prompted a slate of targeted testing and precautionary closures of businesses and organizations.
On the southern peninsula, where most of the current cases have been identified so far, Homer has implemented aggressive testing protocols.
In Soldotna and the rest of the central peninsula, relatively few cases have been identified, and the majority of testing is being conducted on people entering health care facilities for operations and routine procedures, and on those who exhibit symptoms of the disease.
Tami Marsters, a public health nurse based in Kenai, said in an email Friday that cases are increasing all over the state, and a higher rate of testing is not the only factor in the state’s recent spike.
“We are seeing an increase in cases all over the State due to summer travel, more businesses opening up, fisheries, decreased social distancing and decreased use of face coverings,” Marsters said. “Every day we see an increase in cases in different areas of the state.”
With 25 active cases identified in the community since last Thursday, Seward is the current hotspot for COVID-19 on the peninsula.
The outbreak was first reported Thursday, when public health officials identified two local businesses — The Seward Alehouse and the Yukon Bar — as possible exposure sites due to activity the previous weekend.
City officials, health care facilities and local businesses alike were quick to respond to the news of the outbreak.
Several Seward businesses closed their doors starting the Friday after the announcement, including the Seward Alehouse, the Yukon Bar, Seward Brewing Company, the Cookery, the Tufted Puffin, Tony’s Bar, the Lone Chicharron, Woody’s Thai Kitchen, Ukanuzit, Saltwood Smokehouse, Rez Art, Red’s Burgers, Rez Taxi and the Breeze Inn Restaurant and Lounge.
Seward Community Health Center and Glacier Family Medicine began targeted testing last weekend for people who may have visited one of the two bars in question on June 21, 22 or 23. By Sunday hundreds of tests had been conducted, and while many results came back negative, more positive cases did appear as a result.
City Clerk Brenda Ballou said on Tuesday that many of the positive cases identified over the weekend were unrelated to the outbreak at the bars, indicating more widespread contamination than public health officials initially thought. Ballou said that 321 tests from this weekend are still awaiting results, so the extent of the outbreak is still unknown.
“No one is being careless and everyone is doing their best to prevent spreading it,” Ballou said. “It’s just the luck of the draw.”
Seward Community Health Center is continuing to provide targeted testing until Thursday. Glacier Family Medicine is testing anyone who is interested, by appointment. Testing is also available at Providence Seward Medical Center. North Star Health Clinic is providing testing for established patients and Alaska Natives.
On Monday, the Seward Chamber of Commerce announced it would be canceling all Fourth of July events in Seward due to the outbreak. The Mount Marathon Race and the parade through town were already canceled due to the ongoing pandemic, but the chamber’s announcement means an end to the fireworks display and the downtown activities as well.
The Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula also closed the doors of their Seward Clubhouse on Monday until July 3 so that employees could perform extra cleaning and sanitation measures in the building.
Wednesday night, the Seward City Council was scheduled to hold a special meeting to potentially implement further restrictions on the community. Emergency Ordinance 2020-008, if adopted, would close city-owned campgrounds, prohibit gatherings of more than 20 people, require face coverings inside all buildings open to the public and limit restaurants, bars and retail stores to 50% of their indoor capacity.
Since COVID-19 began to show up in force on the peninsula, Homer and other communities on the south peninsula have faced the brunt of the impact.
As of Tuesday, there were 30 active cases on the south peninsula, all of whom are residents. The south peninsula area includes communities that fall under the service area of South Peninsula Hospital: Homer, Fritz Creek, Anchor Point and other smaller communities that are not individually listed in the data provided by Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services. Those are communities like Kachemak City, Nikolaevsk and the Russian Old Believer villages at the head of Kachemak Bay.
A total of 82 cases have been identified as south peninsula residents, and 76 of those positive results have come from tests conducted at SPH in Homer. Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro said on Tuesday that 4,216 tests had been conducted at the hospital so far, with 4,040 coming back negative and 76 returning positive results. This includes 657 tests that were conducted at a pop-up site on the Homer Spit a few weeks ago, which targeted workers in the commercial fishing industry. The positivity rate for tests conducted on the Spit was about .9%, while about 1.8% of the total tests conducted by SPH have come back positive.
Because the City of Homer Port and Harbor is a crucial part of Alaska’s commercial fishing and maritime industries, the state provided SPH and several other commercial fishing communities with a Cepheid PCR test machine so that test results could be processed in-house. Ferraro said that that machine is only used to process samples for people in critical infrastructure, and the influx of those workers has slowed down in recent weeks. Despite the reduced numbers, the hospital still conducts about 100 tests per day on average, Ferraro said.
The Cepheid machine is in addition to an Abbot ID NOW rapid test machine, which processes results quickly but not always accurately. Abbot rapid test machines are available in Homer, Soldotna and Seward. Central Peninsula Hospital’s Public Information Officer Bruce Richards said patients with negative results from these machines are still given health treatment as if they are positive for the disease until a second, more accurate test can confirm the results.
Currently, South Peninsula Hospital provides testing for a variety of reasons. Ferraro said that testing is provided to anyone who works in an industry deemed critical infrastructure by the state, anyone who has recently traveled out of state, anyone who has been contacted by public health and told they were in close contact with a positive case, anyone needing to visit the hospital for a procedure, anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19, and ferry passengers on voyages farther than across Kachemak Bay.
Ferraro said that many of the positive cases initially identified at the hospital were asymptomatic and were people only getting tested as a prerequisite for being admitted to the hospital for other procedures. There were also several clusters of cases identified during the spike, indicating that some people had gathered in groups and spread the disease that way.
“To me that’s an example of how asymptomatic spread is possible,” Ferraro said. “We had people testing positive with no symptoms.”
Many businesses in Homer, like Wild Honey Bistro, continue to require masks or cloth face coverings to enter the establishment. Other restaurants, including the Alibi Bar & Cafe, are still only offering to-go options in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease. No cases have been identified on the southern peninsula since June 25, according to the daily reporting from DHSS.
As of Tuesday, there were only nine active cases of COVID-19 on the central part of the Kenai Peninsula, which includes Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna, Sterling and a few other smaller communities that are not individually listed in the state’s reporting.
One small outbreak was attributed to the Nikiski Fire Department on June 3, when the Kenai Peninsula Borough announced that three Fire Department employees working the same shift had tested positive. The remaining employees on the shift were immediately quarantined, and no additional cases were attributed to that outbreak.
Multiple testing locations are available on the central peninsula, but the majority of tests have been conducted at Central Peninsula Hospital. Richards said that the hospital is testing patients who have gotten a referral from a provider and anyone being admitted to the hospital for procedures. The hospital so far has conducted a total of 1,966 tests. The rate of testing has nearly doubled, Richards said, since the state authorized elective medical procedures on May 4.
Despite the increased rate of testing at CPH, this number is still less than half of the number of tests conducted at SPH, which serves a smaller population.
Richards said that the Cepheid machine in Homer has allowed them to conduct tests at a higher rate, but CPH is in the process of expanding their testing capabilities.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough has authorized the purchase of a Roche cobas 6800 test machine for the hospital, using federal funds distributed by the CARES Act. Richards said that this machine is not expected to arrive for at least four months, but the pandemic will likely still be happening at that point, and the machine will be extremely valuable for future public health emergencies that require widespread testing.
“This won’t be our last rodeo,” Richards said. “History has told us this won’t be the last time, and next time, we will have the ability to do rapid, ubiquitous testing on the peninsula and not have to worry about all the logistics of moving tests up the road to Anchorage.”
Testing is also available on the Central Peninsula 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.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at email@example.com.