I am so sad to be writing about COVID again. Unfortunately, COVID cases are rising at an alarming rate. The delta variant of COVID is now causing a rapidly increasing number of COVID infections in Alaska. This variant is much more contagious than the initial form (wild type) of COVID we saw in late winter 2020. It is infecting fully vaccinated people as well as unvaccinated people.
Today, Aug. 2, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services notes that all areas of Alaska, including Ketchikan, are now at a high risk COVID level. There were 18 new COVID cases identified in Ketchikan today. Ketchikan Medical Center has a steady stream of COVID inpatients. Last time Ketchikan had this kind of increase in daily case counts we were at the highest COVID alert level.
COVID infection numbers are going to get worse. The Alaska DHSS website as of Aug. 2 is projecting an estimated growth rate of 7.1% daily over the next seven days. That is 49.7% increase in cases over the next seven days. Hospitalizations are increasing, and beds are full in the Anchorage area. There is every reason to expect that Ketchikan will follow the recent COVID experience of Sitka, Juneau and Anchorage. Ketchikan just lags a little behind them.
Other Alaskan local governments have taken action to help slow COVID spread in their communities. These actions include providing easy access to community COVID case data so citizens can better assess their own risk. Other communities educate, recommend or institute mitigation measures (for example, masking and distancing). Many Alaskan communities provide public education and encouragement for vaccination.
Other communities have a plan for addressing COVID infected in the unhoused population. Ketchikan, on the other hand, discontinued the EOC COVID efforts July 23, at the very time we needed them most, at the beginning of the new surge of cases. Our local governments have abdicated their role in helping to curb the epidemic.
The EOC is no longer involved in identifying community risk level and making recommendations for individuals and businesses based on that assessment. Currently, the local governments are apparently hoping people figure it out on their own. Many citizens have not figured it out. People are socializing and businesses are open without restriction for the most part. There are many events planned this month which involve social gatherings indoors with eating and drinking. Ketchikan is very likely going to have some superspread events. Yet, many citizens do not understand how quickly COVID cases are escalating or how risky their current social behaviors are for themselves and their friends and family.
There is no visible governmental involvement in COVID education and control except to provide a link on the borough website. This information is not presented in a user-friendly way. In order to get the information previously provided by the EOC, one must go to the borough website, the Alaska DHSS website, and the CDC website. Public health nursing has been providing the data, but it is uncertain how much longer they will be able to keep it current due to their workload.
Public health nurses have many other duties, including contact tracing the increasing number of COVID cases in town. Our local governments should make it easier, not harder, for people to figure out how much COVID is in the community.
Vaccination is the way out of this pandemic, but there is no visible local governmental involvement in educating the public about vaccinations and coordinating with other groups to facilitate vaccination. Local government should be playing a major role in coordinating and facilitating such efforts.
Ketchikan needs a plan for housing the COVID-infected unhoused population. It is the compassionate thing to do. It also helps to prevent community spread. The government is uniquely positioned to assist in such an effort.
Citizens of Ketchikan are like riders on a bus without a driver heading towards a cliff. That cliff is a COVID crisis. The driver should be the three local governments. Our governments should be there to facilitate, educate and act on CDC and Alaska DHSS guidelines before the crisis hits! Put a driver on the bus now, don't wait until the bus' front tire is on the precipice. The well-being of the people and economy of Ketchikan are at stake. And Ketchikan governments can help protect them both.
Dr. Diane Liljegren M.D. is a retired family physician who practiced medicine in Ketchikan from January 1992 through July 1, 2020.