The southern Kenai Peninsula is in the midst of a cluster of COVID-19 cases, but the state’s chief medical officer is not concerned that it’s a sign of widespread community virus spread.
Dr. Anne Zink spoke to the Homer City Council during their Monday meeting, via Zoom. She addressed the recent increase in cases on the peninsula, particularly in the south, and offered some advice on what residents can do to keep themselves and other safe.
This week, the state changed the way it records cases in small communities on the Kenai Peninsula in response to multiple requests. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services identifies communities according to Census Designated Places. A Census Designated Place might not be the same as a person’s residential address.
DHSS uses the category called “other” for cases in communities within the borough that have fewer than 1,000 people. This is to help protect the identity of the people in those small communities who test positive. Until this week, DHSS has been using that category for any resident on the entire peninsula who was a member of a small community of less than 1,000 people.
Now, data on the state’s coronavirus response hub breaks out those cases between the northern peninsula and the southern peninsula. Both the Homer News and representatives from the City of Homer had requested the state make this change. Zink told the council on Monday that she had recently received many similar requests via email.
“There’s been a specific request to separate out the south Kenai Peninsula from the north Kenai Peninsula so that it was a little bit more clear from that perspective,” she said.
Zink said on Monday night that the DHSS data team was working on that. By Tuesday, the change had been implemented on the state coronavirus website.
The breakdown of the 23 cases in the “other” category for the Kenai Peninsula shows that only one of them is on the northern peninsula, while 22 of the cases are on the southern peninsula.
The breakdown of the cases on the peninsula is now as follows: 24 Homer cases, 22 cases in the “other” category on the southern peninsula, 13 Kenai cases, 12 Soldotna cases, eight Anchor Point cases, five Nikiski cases, four Seward cases, three Sterling cases, one case in the “other” category for the northern peninsula, one Fritz Creek case and one Fox River case.
Zink told the council in her visitor presentation that the peninsula is experiencing a cluster of cases, along with Anchorage. The rise in cases is due in part to all four of the main ways Zink said the virus spreads: through travel, through asymptomatic people, through large gatherings and through people in congregate settings — people who live together, for example.
Gatherings have played a part in the recent cluster of cases, Zink said.
“There appears to be numerous gatherings that took place over the Memorial Day weekend,” she said. “Celebratory and family gatherings that seemed to be an acceleration event, particularly in the Kenai Peninsula. People get together, feel fine, and then afterwards share the disease and then we start to see an outbreak from there.”
While those gatherings accelerated the rise of cases on the peninsula, Zink said she would not consider the situation on the peninsula to be “widespread” community spread of the virus.
When asked about the roles of the state and local municipalities in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, Zink said the ability of cities to create mandates where the virus is concerned varies across the state.
“Different boroughs and cities have different legal authority,” she said.
Mayor Ken Castner said that the city of Homer does not have the authority to mandate the wearing of face coverings for its citizens. In a follow-up interview, Castner explained that as a first-class city with no charter, Homer is beholden to Title 29 of Alaska statute, which spells out the rules of municipal government. Because Homer is not a home rule municipality and does not have its own charter spelling out any additional authorities, the city must follow the lead of the state government.
Some cities, Soldotna being the most recent one on the peninsula, have voted to become home rule cities. Home rule cities have their own charters that spell out their powers and in some cases can give the cities more authority in certain areas. Anchorage, for example, has the authority to make mandates for its municipality that are separate from state mandates.
Homer considered becoming a home rule city in 2014, but voters rejected the idea.
While Zink said that certain municipalities have lesser powers than others when it comes to being able to create local mandates, she also pointed to Gov. Mike Dunleavy as a potential option.
“The governor has made it really clear that he wants local jurisdictions to be able to make the decisions that they want,” she said. “If that is something that the council wanted, I mean, you could always propose to ask the governor if he would be willing to mandate it for your community, if the state only has that legal authority.”
In the follow up interview on Tuesday, Castner said that is not an avenue he would consider pursuing at this time. Such a request would have to go through the city council, he said.
During the council meeting, Zink said that while the state mandates regarding intrastate travel, business operations and other limitations on social life have ended, DHSS is still trying to put out a consistent message regarding the coronavirus.
“From a health side we’ve been trying to be very consistent that face coverings or masks., particularly indoors, make a difference in mitigating the spread of it (the virus),” she said.
Council member Heath Smith pointed out that increased testing can lead to an increased number of reported positive cases of COVID-19. Community testing days and pop-up testing sites have been on the rise on the southern peninsula.
“My question is, are we exceeding what you had projected or modeled through that increase of testing, or are we kind of on par with that?” he asked Zink. “Is it surprising? … When it comes to, like tests per capita, has the peninsula kind of out paced what Anchorage is doing, or is it comparable?”
Zink said that testing does make a difference. In some cases, widespread testing of a community or facility, like a long term care facility, can reveal many cases. At the Providence Transitional Care Center in Anchorage, Zink said testing had so far revealed 47 cases. That’s compared to a long term care facility in Fairbanks where testing revealed only a handful of cases.
“I think that the cases going up are more than I hoped for, but not more than I expected,” Zink said.
At the same time, she mentioned that people’s personal mitigation strategies since the lifting of most state mandates still need to be encouraged.
“I do think that people have thought ‘open’ meant ‘over,’ and it’s definitely not over,” Zink said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.