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Police investigating Ketchikan traveler who broke COVID-19 quarantine as Alaska’s active cases hit another new high

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A new COVID-19 case in Ketchikan has triggered a broad investigation after local authorities say a traveler with the virus ignored quarantine, potentially infecting many others in the Inside Passage community of about 8,500 people.

Ketchikan emergency officials issued a statement Wednesday notifying the community the person was waiting for results from airport testing June 13 and was instructed to quarantine until they came in.

Instead, officials say, they attended “several social gatherings and public places” attended by many young people, families and locals on Saturday, Sunday and Monday before their positive test result came Tuesday.

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“Because this individual did not quarantine after arrival to Ketchikan as directed, there is potential of a wide community spread of COVID-19,” the release says. “The effects of the social gatherings are far-reaching and there has been a broad ripple effect to many citizens and organizations.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if the person was a resident or from outside Alaska. The state confirmed positive cases in both types of people in Ketchikan on Tuesday.

Authorities are conducting what they called an extensive contact investigation. The person is in isolation and being monitored daily by public health workers.

The Ketchikan Police Department is conducting an investigation into the apparent violation of the state mandate requiring travel testing and quarantine.

Many municipal departments are also changing operations out of “an abundance of caution due to close and secondary contacts to the positive case,” officials say. Multiple department heads and employees are working from home and self-quarantining. A telecommunications customer service location will be closed for at least two weeks.

Emergency officials urged people in Ketchikan to self-quarantine for 14 days -- and urged parents to quiz their teenagers about social interactions -- if they attended an event or gathering where social distancing wasn’t followed or with recent travelers in attendance.

Pogo mine cases

The new Ketchikan case confirmed Tuesday was one of 20 new cases reported by state health officials on Wednesday.

Four workers at a gold mine near Delta Junction also tested positive for COVID-19 this week, corporate officials say.

Three of the Pogo Mine workers were among five new cases in out-of-state residents reported Wednesday by Alaska health officials.

The state now has 246 active cases -- people who have tested positive and haven’t recovered -- which marks another new high since the pandemic hit Alaska in March, according to the Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard.

Pogo experienced a cluster of the virus early on when a worker tested positive in early April after coming off shift. A total of six workers who tested positive then have since recovered, mine officials say.

The latest numbers bring to 10 the number of confirmed cases among the mine’s 420 employees.

The current cases began when two workers tested positive three days after starting their shift, according to a release from Pogo owner Northern Star Resources. Seven close contacts were identified and transported off-site.

Two of the close contacts also tested positive, the company says. Three of the four are nonresidents but none of the cases is considered travel related.

To help minimize the spread of COVID-19, Northern Star is providing incentives to keep out-of-state residents in Alaska during their rostered leave, according to the release. Those employees haven’t left the state in three months.

All of the infected employees are isolating off-site with mild symptoms, the company says.

Alaska’s daily case count, in single digits for weeks, began rising in late May after Gov. Mike Dunleavy lifted COVID-related restrictions to allow the economy to reopen.

Health officials say the numbers now go up and down daily, but hospitalizations and deaths are staying relatively low. Twelve Alaskans have died with the virus, including two who were residents at the Providence Transitional Care Center experiencing the state’s largest outbreak.

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The state reported just one new hospitalization Wednesday, bringing the total over that four-month period to 54. Hospitals around the state say there are 23 people with positive cases or those under investigation right now, a slight increase. None of them required ventilators as of Wednesday.

The new cases bring the state’s total to 778: 696 among residents, and another 82 in out-of-state residents. It’s not clear how sick the positive cases are, or whether they’re showing symptoms.

Along with the three mine workers, one of the nonresident cases was a seafood worker in Ketchikan and another was classified as “other” in the Nome area, according to state data.

Reports of positive tests in Alaska residents Tuesday came from around the state, with the most in Fairbanks, which for weeks saw no cases but started reporting new ones last week.

New Fairbanks cases

The Fairbanks cases are the first cases of COVID-19 reported for Fort Wainwright. Leadership at the U.S. Army base provided a video update on Tuesday.

All six of the new cases confirmed Tuesday are in the same household, according to a spokeswoman for Foundation Health Partners.

Last week, an employee of the Fairbanks Pioneer Home tested positive. The new cases are not associated with the Pioneer Home, according to Foundation Health Partners spokeswoman Kelly Atlee.

Along with the six Wainwright cases, the state reported two new cases in Anchorage and Palmer, and one case each in Chugiak, Eagle River, Soldotna, Kodiak, the North Slope Borough — that region’s second case — as well as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Wrangell.

The person from the North Slope region who tested positive was being treated for another reason at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, according to Tim Rowe, public information officer for the Arctic Slope Native Association. They received a positive test result through a rapid test Tuesday

A second, confirmatory test result came back negative and the patient is waiting on the results of another confirmatory test, according to an association release.

The person’s home community was not announced to protect the individual’s privacy, the association said. A team from Samuel Simonds Memorial Hospital went to the unnamed community to aid in testing and answer questions.

The new case in Kodiak brings the island community’s total to five: three among residents and two among out-of-state seafood industry workers, officials there say. Two of the community’s cases have recovered; the other three are being monitored but not showing symptoms.

The reaction to COVID-19 in Kodiak is mixed, said Meagan Christiansen, a spokeswoman for the Kodiak emergency operations center: elders and immuno-compromised people are vulnerable, while others don’t see the virus as a threat.

There are about 80 people arriving in Kodiak every day via Alaska Airlines, Christiansen said Wednesday. They’re fishing and seafood industry workers, college students home for the summer and contractors coming to the U.S. Coast Guard base.

“There are some people that are very concerned and afraid of contracting it. There are other people who aren’t concerned about it at all, particularly because we still have a small number of cases,” she said. “There has not been any real sickness related to those cases and so the virus is … everything about it is confusing.”

Reporter Morgan Krakow contributed to this story.

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