Public health nurse manager Theresa Ruzek, front left, holds a box containing the first few doses of COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Ketchikan in December 2020. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Ketchikan’s local governments have stepped up their public health messaging during an ongoing surge of COVID-19. But local officials have stopped short of reactivating Ketchikan’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate its response to the pandemic.

Communities across the nation have mobilized EOCs to deal with the pandemic. That stands for Emergency Operations Center, an interagency clearinghouse that coordinates supplies, tracks the virus locally and makes recommendations for public health. Ketchikan’s EOC was disbanded this summer as case counts fell.

But just weeks later, cases started rising again as Ketchikan reckoned with its largest-ever surge of COVID-19. By mid-August, weekly case totals exceeded the worst times in previous surges in November 2020 and May 2021. And cases have remained stubbornly high ever since.

Ketchikan-based state public health nurse manager Jen Bergen says she recently saw the situation getting to a critical point. She says a record-high nine COVID-19 hospitalizations at Ketchikan’s 25-bed hospital last week had her worried.

So last week she called a meeting of local government officials from Ketchikan’s city and borough, along with the city of Saxman.

“When you kind of reach that capacity, that becomes alarming, where you’re not gonna have beds for heart attacks, accidents and COVID patients. So with that hospital capacity being near that limit, we decided it’s time to get that messaging out that we really do as a community need to come together and reduce the spread,” Bergen said in a phone interview Monday.

Ketchikan’s city and borough responded by getting more active on social media. On Thursday, Facebook posts warned Ketchikan residents and visitors to take precautions to keep from overwhelming the community’s 25-bed hospital. Another post went out Friday encouraging masks, vaccines and other precautions.

But messaging is about the extent of the local government response, at least for now.

Borough Mayor Rodney Dial says despite the record-breaking surge, he thinks Ketchikan can do fine without its Emergency Operations Center.

“If there is an action item that an EOC could accomplish, I think we would all be interested in considering bringing the EOC back. But I guess where we’re at right now, in this process, when we include the state help, is that there’s really nothing actionable for an EOC to do that we can’t already do without an EOC,” Dial said by phone Monday.

He says he’s in touch with the state health and social services commissioner, Adam Crum, and he’s asked the state’s public health division to provide more Ketchikan-specific data on the borough’s website. Dial put up his own COVID-19 video last week urging people to stay home when sick and warning that high case numbers could be used to justify vaccine mandates and other “permanent changes in society.”

At one point last week, about a quarter of the hospital’s total beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center’s chief administrative officer, Dori Stevens, says doctors and nurses have been straining with the rising cases. She said the hospital admitted 11 COVID-19 inpatients in the week that ended last Friday.

“But so far, we’ve been able to make the necessary accommodations to appropriately serve both COVID and non-COVID patients. If our COVID numbers continue to climb, we would have to look at things such as limiting surgeries and procedures to urgent only,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “But at this point in time, we have not had to do that.”

She says at times, it’s been difficult to find a place in Lower 48 hospitals for Ketchikan’s COVID-19 patients who need more advanced care. But she says so far they’ve managed it.

Hospitals in Anchorage resorted to so-called “crisis standards of care” earlier this year during a surge in Southcentral Alaska. That means they’ve had to turn away patients with less threatening ailments as they ration care for coronavirus and other serious cases. But Stevens says that’s not the case here.

“We’re not close to that, at this point in time, to have to ration care at all or to initiate the crisis standards of care,” she said. “Right now we’re open and available to our community.”

She says there isn’t a firm number of patients that would exceed the hospital’s capacity — it all depends on what kind of care they need and the resources that are available.

Stevens says the hospital is, like many employers, hard up for workers, and that can stress its ability to care for large numbers of patients. She says she doesn’t think the hospital’s vaccine mandate for employees is contributing to the staffing issues — she says just five employees were placed on unpaid leave when the mandate took effect at the end of August. That’s 1.1% of the total staff, she said.

Stevens says the hospital currently has more than a month’s worth of personal protective gear and plenty of oxygen for patients who need it.

The hospital administrator says the best way to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse is to get vaccinated, avoid crowds, wear a mask in public spaces and diligently keep up with hand-washing.

Through all this, hospital administrators and state health officials are appealing for Ketchikan’s eligible population to get vaccinated.

“Vaccination is our top protection, ” she said. “That is definitely the best protection out there.”

Masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene are important too, as is staying home when you’re sick.

Bergen says new cases are still high as of Monday. But she says there is some good news.

“We still are seeing a surge,” she said, “but it looks like those hospitalizations have started to drop.”

A PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center spokesperson said that as of about 11 a.m. Monday, the hospital had four COVID-19 patients.

With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, Bergen says it’s a good idea to keep events small, outdoors if possible, and ensure that as many attendees as possible are vaccinated and tested for COVID-19. And in the meantime, local officials will continue to dispense advice on keeping numbers low.