This National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases image shows a scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (pink) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (green), isolated from a patient sample.  (Micrograph: NIAID)

Ketchikan emergency officials raised the community’s pandemic alert level to “moderate” after reporting five new positive cases of COVID-19 Wednesday. Officials say they think the area’s eight active cases are linked, but Ketchikan’s head of pandemic response says he believes the outbreak has been contained.

Local officials announced a total of three coronavirus cases Monday and Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, the city’s pandemic response chief, Abner Hoage, reported five new cases in a single day.

“One of those cases was — the first one was travel related, recent travel. The other seven are not travel-related, but all eight cases are tied to a single location, here in the community. So it’s one outbreak, is what we have right now, in one location,” Hoage told KRBD in a phone interview Wednesday. “And we believe at this point that we have that kind of boxed in, if you will.”

Local officials aren’t sharing any more information about the location or nature of the cluster. But Hoage says the cases are not associated with a school or a health care provider.

“Maybe as Public Health finishes the contact investigation, I may be able to share a little bit more, but for right now, I think that’s — that’s what we can share,” he said.

The cluster of new cases led local officials to raise the pandemic alert level to “moderate,” the second-lowest of four risk levels. The new cases pushed the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive to 1.3%, prompting the shift in risk level. Basically, that means there’s more coronavirus in the Ketchikan area.

“So there is a slightly elevated risk,” Hoage said. “I will temper that with the fact that as of right now, this is a single outbreak as all tied to a single location, and that we don’t think that we have a significant problem right yet, but we want people to be extra cautious.”

The move to moderate risk doesn’t come with any mandatory restrictions for businesses. And for now, Ketchikan’s students will continue to attend school in person.

But Hoage said he’s asking residents and businesses to pay special attention to pandemic precautions: frequent hand-washing, wearing a mask in public places and keeping six feet of distance between household groups.

“And just, just that extra little level of alertness, I think, is what we really want to encourage,” he said.

He’s also asking bars, restaurants and other businesses to voluntarily reduce their capacity to make sure groups can remain six feet from one another. Additionally, the borough-run Gateway Recreation Center will limit the number of people inside its cardio and weight rooms, and bus patrons will be required to wear a mask before being allowed to board.

If the local positivity rate rises above 2%, local officials would raise the risk level to “high”, moving Ketchikan schools to a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. Other pandemic metrics could also raise the risk level, even if the positivity rate stayed at about 1%. But Hoage emphasizes that local officials believe the outbreak is contained.

If the positivity rate falls below 1%, the risk level could return to “low.”

Hoage says there’s a difference between this cluster and other recent positives. Most of the time, people who test positive in Ketchikan aren’t showing symptoms.

“And this time, more than half of them are symptomatic. And the symptoms are maybe even more mild or different than what we’ve talked about a lot. These folks primarily presented with body aches and headaches,” Hoage said.

Free drive-up COVID-19 testing is available at Berth 3 in downtown Ketchikan five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and again from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Anyone with even minor symptoms is eligible. Many without symptoms — including those who have recently traveled outside the Ketchikan area — are also eligible.

There’s more information about COVID-19 testing in Ketchikan at the local testing hotline — 247-TEST