Alaska News

Coronavirus outbreak tied to Ketchikan wrestling tournament involves over 20 cases in 5 Southeast Alaska towns

A COVID-19 outbreak associated with a high school regional wrestling tournament held in Ketchikan in late April has now been linked to more than 20 coronavirus cases in five Southeast communities, health officials said this week.

The tournament, which attracted athletes from seven schools around Southeast Alaska, was hosted by Ketchikan High School. Officials from Region 5, which represents Alaska School Activities Association schools in the area, issued a warning to Ketchikan High School for allegedly failing to test wrestlers or enforce mask wearing at the event — both of which are required under the region’s mitigation policies.

District officials say they are investigating what happened.

Ketchikan is seeing a slight increase in COVID-19 cases. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough emergency operations center reported 11 new cases on Thursday — a notable increase for a community of Ketchikan’s size, according to a spokesperson — for a total of 53 active cases in the region.

By Thursday, at least 11 students and two staff members from Ketchikan High School tested positive for COVID-19, along with five other residents, as part of the high school outbreak.

Another five cases have been identified in four other communities — Sitka, Craig, Klawock and Wrangell — that participated in the tournament. That brings the total number of cases that could be traced back to the wrestling tournament to 23, said Kacie Paxton, spokesperson for the Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center.

More Ketchikan cases were reported Thursday, but health officials are still investigating whether they’re connected to the tournament, Paxton said. Local public health officials have asked for help from the state with contact tracing efforts.

The Bill Weiss Tournament is an annual event that brings together wrestlers and their families from around the Southeast region.

Ketchikan High School, which hosted the event, last week received a formal warning from Region 5 for reportedly neglecting to test athletes before they participated in the tournament or enforce masking during the event, according to a letter that was sent to the school and acquired by KRBD.

“It is clearly stated in the Region 5 Mitigation Plan that COVID-19 testing is required for all Region 5 wrestling events,” said the letter, which was signed by Region 5 president Jaime Cabral. At meetings that Ketchikan representatives attended, “it was repeatedly stated that all wrestlers must be tested prior to attending any wrestling event that takes place within Region 5 schools,” the letter said.

“The undue stress on all communities and participating schools could have and should have been avoided,” the letter added.

Future violations could result in the school being banned from participating in interscholastic sports for the upcoming school year.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District is looking into exactly what happened because the letter doesn’t identify details, officials there say. The district has 30 days to respond to the Region 5 letter but intends to provide information sooner because of the high level of public interest, said Katie Parrott, acting superintendent.

“We really want to do a thorough review,” Parrott said Thursday. “We genuinely want to and care about our community and the communities in Southeast.”

The district prides itself on the “100% evidence-based” coronavirus mitigation plans in effect since the start of the pandemic, she said. “Honestly, our review will likely extend outside of what’s mentioned in the letter just because we want to be reviewing our practices and making sure our protocols are matching best practices, we’re being consistent in our application of them.”

Contact tracing determined that at least five people had COVID-19 when they attended the wrestling tournament, Paxton said.

Ketchikan High School remains closed through the week to allow additional quarantining and testing to occur, and is scheduled to reopen partially to in-person learning beginning Monday.

Drive-thru testing at the school will be available from 8 a.m. to noon Friday and is open to all district students, staff and family or household members.

Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed reporting.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.