Local officials and industry representatives held a press conference in Ketchikan to share information on preparedness for coronavirus in the community.
Ketchikan fire chief and emergency manager Abner Hoage gave an overview of what local agencies and partners are doing to prepare for the coronavirus. He said Tuesday afternoon that it’s likely cases will develop in Ketchikan, and everyone should have a personal plan in place for home and work.
“And then just make plans for if something happens here and we have the virus arrive and that your employer has to make adjustments, or you have to make adjustments to deal with child care, etc.”
He pointed residents to the Centers for Disease Control’s website for guidance on preventative measures and preparation. Like a cold or flu, coronavirus is transmitted by infected people coughing, and sneezing. It can also be picked up by touching a contaminated surface. Frequent hand washing with soap and water is advised as is covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding anyone with potential symptoms.
Ketchikan is projected to receive more than a million cruise passengers. But Hoage says he doubts the first cases will arrive on a cruise ship. He says more likely an infected person will step off a passenger jet.
“The Coast Guard and CDC are monitoring cruise ships already. They’re required to report any cases or suspected cases of coronavirus. And as you’re seeing in the national news, these ships are not making it to shore with sick people on board. They’re finding out ahead of time and they’re not making it there.”
Port and Harbors Director Steve Corporon echoed this sentiment. He says it is unlikely that a ship would be sent to Ketchikan if coronavirus infected people were aboard.
“Knowing that we don’t have the capacity here to shelter, or ship out a lot of COVID-19 patients, they most likely would not direct a ship here to offload.”
He says if an infected ship were held offshore, it could anchor off Pennock Island. A ship without its own wastewater treatment could dock downtown at Berth 2.
“But the plan would not be, that we know, to offload anybody here. Once they determined they needed to get people off the boat, they would probably direct them down to the Seattle area is our guess.”
Rick Erickson of Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska says the cruise industry is being very aggressive about screening for coronavirus. Because cruise ships are bypassing the Asian market due to coronavirus concerns, Alaska could even see additional sailings this summer.
“We’ve seen an additional seven voyages throughout the four ships that have changed their itinerary to date and come into the Alaska Market.”
Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium will add two additional stops in Ketchikan, Holland America’s Westerdam one, and Viking Cruises’ Orion three.
Erickson says it’s uncertain if passenger numbers will be down, but expects some cancellations.
Jen Bergen is the lead public health nurse. She says many other diseases have similar symptoms, so only those meeting certain criteria are actually tested for coronavirus.
“Have they been to those high-risk area? Have they been in Washington, especially Kirkland recently? Those would be high-risk travels. Have they been in contact with a lab-confirmed COVID-19?”
She says it’s up to a health care provider’s clinical judgement on whether or not a patient is tested.
PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center has 25 hospital beds with an additional 5 in the intensive care unit and four operating rooms, but Dr. Peter Rice says people would likely be quarantined at home, not at the hospital.
School superintendent Beth Lougee says the district has a plan in place for a pandemic. Travel for student activities in Alaska is still allowed and out-of-state travel is being monitored. She says they are looking into options should an event like graduation be impacted.
“Should we see something that we can’t hold it, will there be means to provide a ceremony over the T.V., who we would allow in – the healthy people – if we just need to close it down to immediate family. So we are constantly, daily working on updates like that.
Governor Mike Dunleavy declared Alaska had a coronavirus public health disaster on Wednesday morning, though there have been no confirmed cases in the state. So far two people in Ketchikan have been tested. Results came back negative.
Officials at the Tuesday briefing acknowledged there are many unknowns and the situation is fluid. If any significant changes occur, emergency managers pledged to hold future briefings. In the meantime, the advice remains constant: practice good hygiene, stay home if sick, and if symptoms occur, call a doctor’s office for advice. Don’t go straight to the hospital unless directed to — that could spread the illness.