UPDATE: Ketchikan’s first confirmed coronavirus case took to social media Tuesday night to update his colleagues and neighbors on his personal situation. Glenn Brown says he returned from the Lower 48 earlier this month and first developed symptoms — a headache, fever, body aches and chills — Saturday, March 14.
Brown said in an email relayed to KRBD that he traveled to Seattle on March 6 and spent the night in Maple Valley. He said he spent the next two days in the Yachats, Oregon area before returning to Seattle for a flight back to Alaska on March 9. But his flight skipped a scheduled stop in Ketchikan, he said, leaving him to spend the night in Juneau before returning to Ketchikan on March 10.
He says officials with the state Division of Public Health interviewed him about his recent interactions after telling him he’d tested positive for COVID-19.
“I answered more than an hour worth of questions hoping to give them as much information as possible. I recounted every step of my life since March 6 using cell records, work calendars, as well as debit and credit card records so that Public Health could conduct as thorough an investigation as possible,” Brown said in a social media post.
He says staff at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center collected samples for testing Monday. He says state health officials have ordered him to isolate himself at home, but his symptoms have largely subsided as of Tuesday.
“I have no idea where I caught it and I interacted with no one in recent weeks who was exhibiting obvious symptoms. I apologize for causing undue concern for anyone, especially my co-workers at the Borough. They are a great team of people, committed to serving the public the best way possible,” he wrote.
Brown is Ketchikan’s borough attorney and a KRBD board member.
The original story published Tuesday evening is below.
A Ketchikan resident has tested positive for coronavirus. That’s according to state and local officials who said Tuesday the local government employee is the state’s sixth confirmed case and first in Southeast Alaska.
The infected individual is a Ketchikan borough employee that had recently returned from the Lower 48. The state Division of Public Health relayed the results to local officials on Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, state health officials interviewed the individual about their activities since returning to Ketchikan earlier this month.
“They provided detailed information about everyone they were in contact with, their routine, the places that they went, the people that they encountered,” said Kacie Paxton, spokesperson for Ketchikan’s emergency operations center.
Since then, the borough says it’s contracted a professional firm to disinfect inside and out of the borough’s White Cliff Building where the infected person is employed.
Colleagues that had come in direct contact with the employee would be self-isolating for at least 14 days, the borough said in a written statement. The individual is not being named to preserve their privacy.
State officials say it’s the sixth confirmed case with more than 400 tests returned negative. Still, it’s difficult to know how widespread coronavirus is in Ketchikan or Alaska as a whole.
PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center Medical Director Peter Rice told KRBD Friday that he’d like to see widespread coronavirus testing to get a handle on the extent of the crisis.
“No, I think everyone would agree that we, ideally, would be testing very broadly so we can get a handle on how many people are infected with COVID-19,” Rice said.
State health officials say all of Alaska’s confirmed coronavirus cases are travel-related — that is, Alaskans that had presumably been exposed to the virus out of state.
But officials in Ketchikan say residents should behave as if the virus is already circulating. Ketchikan Emergency Manager Abner Hoage was blunt about local precautions and widespread closures upending daily life.
“If we wait until we have community spread, it’s going to be too late,” he said during a borough assembly meeting Monday.
Hoage says even healthy residents should be on the lookout for a fever, cough or trouble breathing.
“We want people to take even mild symptoms very seriously,” Hoage said in a phone interview Monday night. “The best thing that we can do, the way that we can have the most impact, is flattening the curve.”
He advises that those with symptoms call their doctor for instructions instead of coming into the office, where the virus could spread. He says most people with mild symptoms won’t need medical care for COVID-19 — but isolation is key. And for residents with families, Hoage’s advice goes much further than simply not leaving the house.
“Isolate from your family, in a separate room if at all possible, use a separate restroom from the rest of your family, clean often,” he said.
Hoage says people with heart, lung, or other major medical issues should immediately call their doctor for even mild symptoms. That’s also true of people over 65 — about 15 percent of the borough’s population.
But authorities aren’t just relying on people to isolate themselves. On Monday, Ketchikan’s borough and city mayors joined the mayor of Saxman to close all administrative buildings to the public. The governor has ordered restaurants and bars to close for dine-in service at 5 p.m. Wednesday, though take-out and delivery will still be allowed. State officials have also closed public schools, museums and libraries closed through the end of March.
And Ketchikan’s borough assembly voted unanimously Tuesday to allow for telconferences rather than in-person meetings. That was part of an ordinance suspending portions of the borough’s code for 60 days.
That emergency measure also relaxes rules and deadlines on senior tax-exempt cards. That’s intended to allow caregivers to avoid sales taxes on purchases for elders — allowing the most vulnerable to stay indoors instead of going to the store themselves.
Will these measures be too much? Too little? Hoage says time will tell.
“You know, we’re doing a lot of things here in Ketchikan out of an abundance of caution. That’s probably an overused phrase, right? But the things that we do today, we’re not going to know if that’s — we may never know if we overreacted,” he said. “But if we don’t react enough, things will get very bad. And we will absolutely know that we didn’t react enough.”
In the meantime, Ketchikan’s emergency management coordinators are taking their cues from federal and state authorities working to limit people’s exposure to the coronavirus.
This story has been updated.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Brown returned to Ketchikan on March 6. Brown said he departed from Ketchikan on March 6 and returned on March 10.