Local public health and emergency medical services officials spoke to the Homer City Council at its Monday meeting on how Homer agencies will handle the growing COVID-19 outbreak if it spreads to Alaska.
There are no confirmed cases of the disease in Alaska so far, according to the Alaska Department of Heatlh and Social Services. As of Tuesday evening, DHSS had investigated 47 patients suspected of having the virus, with 31 testing negative and 16 with tests pending.
The Homer News submitted a public records request to DHSS seeking more details on those cases, such as age, gender and locality, but DHSS did not reply by Wednesday.
Nationally, 647 positive cases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
In a special report to the council, Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko, South Peninsula Hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro and Alaska Public Health nurse and Homer Team Leader Lorne Carroll told council members how the city has responded to the potential threat of COVID-19 so far.
As an example of how quickly the situation has changed, Ferraro said South Peninsula Hospital had not activated its Hospital Incident Command System as of last Tuesday. By last Thursday, SPH set its system at level 1.
“We activated it Thursday for the purpose of planning and preparation,” she said.
Also this week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy suspended community visits to Kenai, Seward and Homer. He had planned a meeting on Wednesday afternoon in Homer with the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center and with the public that evening. The press release said Dunleavy cancelled the visits “to remain closely connected to federal and local partners while monitoring the rapidly-evolving information in regard to the novel coronavirus.”
On Wednesday, Dunleavy also declared a public health emergency. According to a press release, that declaration sets up a unified command structure between DHSS, the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Public Safety. The declaration also permits the DHSS commissioner to exercise state statues related to isolation and quarantine measures, and makes it easier for the state to purchase supplies, hire temporary staff, and access disaster relief funds for public assistance.
At the council meeting, Kirko said the city is taking every step it can to keep people safe.
“We’re doing what we can to provide accurate and timely information to the public,” Kirko said. “… Emergency management is prepared to handle any situation that arises in the community. … Whether it’s a health issue or any other issue, we are ready to go.”
Carroll pointed to a slide in the presentation showing a recent meeting of officials who have been gathering in response to the coronavirus threat and said these are the same people he’s been running exercises with since 2016 when they did an assessment of the Homer public health system and in 2018 when they did a “point of dispensing” exercise to see how fast life saving medicine could be distributed.
“And now in 2020 we’re looking at gathering these same folks you see around this table to respond to this community’s needs,” he said.
Carroll said the transmission infection rate for COVID-19 is 2.5 people for every person infected in the absence of intervention. It spreads primarily through respiratory droplets — moisture from a cough or sneeze. The signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to influenza, with high fever, shortness of breath and sore muscles. Preliminary data suggests that 85% of cases will be mild.
COVID-19 can be more serious to people older than 60 or those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart and lung disease. Dunleavy and the DHSS announced new recommendations to slow the spread of the virus in a press release on Tuesday, particularly for vulnerable Alaskans in those categories. The recommendations are based on guidance from the CDC.
“The recommendations include everyday preventive measures for all Alaskans and new measures for people older than 60, or those with chronic health conditions, such as staying home as much as possible, keeping prescription medicines and groceries on hand and avoiding crowd,” the press release said.
In health alert notice, Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for Alaska, suggested vulnerable Alaskans avoid crowds and mass gatherings.
The CDC also recommended that higher risk people avoid non-essential travel including plane trips and “especially avoid embarking on cruise ships.”
In response to a question by council member Donna Aderhold about cruise ships coming to Homer this summer, Carroll said the state is working with the cruise line industry. The state and industry have a shared role protecting clients on cruise ships and the communities where they dock, he said.
People also should be proactive in preventing the spread of disease, Ferraro wrote in an email.
“We need to practice good hygiene and common sense,” she wrote. “A person might have it and have no idea they do. Then they go visit grandma and give it to her, who now gets it but it might be life threatening for her. So if we all assume others have it, and keep our distance, wash our hands, cough into our sleeve, keep our hands out of the T zone (mouth, nose and eyes), it will help prevent the spread to our vulnerable population.”
“It really falls on the population at large to be smart about handling any sickness that comes on them,” council member Heath Smith said at the council presentation.
Ferraro said the hospital already has an infectious disease plan in place.
“So what do we do if we have a case of COVID-19?” she asked. “It’s more likely when we have a positive case. When that happens, we pull out this plan.”
Already, SPH has taken steps to protect its most vulnerable patients, the residents of Long Term Care. The hospital has put up signs restricting access there.
“If anyone comes to visit, don’t come in here unless you’re unbelievably healthy. We want to protect them,” she said.
Ferraro said people should not seek face masks from the hospital.
“We’re not the mask distribution center for 99603,” she said. “Please don’t come to the hospital and ask for masks.”
In response to a question by Mayor Ken Castner about how many beds the hospital has, Ferraro said they are nine in the Emergency Room, 18 in-patient beds on the main floor, and three beds in obstetrics. There also are three isolation rooms. Depending on the level of care, the hospital also might call the state for an alternate care site or transfer a patient to another hospital. South Peninsula Hospital also has a memorandum of understanding with the state. If Homer got to the point where more resources are needed, it would contact the city and the Kenai Peninsula Borough before going to the state for assistance. That assistance might mean more staff or more beds.
Anyone who has symptoms of respiratory infection (fever more than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing) or who has traveled from countries designated level 3 (China, Iran, South Korea and Italy) or level 2 (Japan) in the past 14 days should call SPH facilities before coming in. Those numbers are South Peninsula Hospital, 235-0235; Homer Medical Center, 235-8586; Homer Medical Center West Wing, 435-3040; SPH Speciality Clinic, 235-0310; Carol Klamser, Family Practice, 235-0310.
For more information, visit these websites:
City of Homer website for COVID-19: https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/emergency-information/covid-19-situation-overview
Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) travel information website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District website at https://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/students_parents.aspx?id=41540 includes information on travel restrictions and links to other sites.
CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Coronavirus webpage: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/Human-Coronavirus.aspx
Information for older adults and people with serious, chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html#stay-home
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.