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New COVID-19 cases tied to Girdwood gathering as Anchorage urges virus vigilance

The community of Girdwood, photographed on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

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Five people who were at a gathering in Girdwood earlier this month tested positive for COVID-19 while others reported symptoms of the illness but declined to get tested, Anchorage health officials said Friday, urging increased vigilance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some attendees also went to another gathering in Girdwood held six days later, on June 11, while they were likely infectious, Anchorage Health Department director Natasha Pineda said during a community briefing.

Three of the five who tested positive after the June 5 gathering live in Girdwood, and two are from Anchorage, Pineda said. An additional 42 people from the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and Girdwood are being monitored in association with the private gatherings, she said.

“We have serious concern about the events in Girdwood,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, chief medical officer at the city health department. “And I think it’s likely we’re going to see more cases coming out of that community.”

In light of the Girdwood gatherings, the Anchorage Health Department issued an alert Friday about the importance of physically distancing from non-household members, wearing a face covering, washing hands and avoiding crowds.

The health department also noted that if someone had recent contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, they should stay home for two weeks after being exposed.

At the Girdwood gatherings, which took place primarily outdoors, Pineda said “there wasn’t a use of masks, there was no adherence to physical distancing” — behaviors she described as “high risk.”

Pineda said they can’t force anyone to get tested, but that it’s recommended based on someone’s symptoms and exposure.

“I’m concerned, definitely, about group gatherings,” Pineda said. “Especially when people aren’t interested in participating in physical distancing.”

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said during the briefing that if people keep a safe distance and wear masks, he wouldn’t implement a limit on large gatherings.

“But again, we are on the cusp of COVID having more of a presence in the community,” Berkowitz said. “And if that steps up, then I don’t think we would hesitate to start to put additional restrictions in place about the size of gatherings or the location of gatherings.”

Berkowitz also announced that a mask mandate is on the table, saying Anchorage needs to get to a level of “critical mask,” but there is no immediate plan to issue a mandate.

If people don’t want to have to wear masks under a mandate, they should start wearing them voluntarily, he said.

“We have the opportunity to start masking up in greater numbers,” Berkowitz said.

In Anchorage, there are more COVID-19 cases than test results have shown, said Chandler, the city’s chief medical officer. As an example, Chandler said that someone was tested before a dental procedure but didn’t start showing symptoms until days later and was “likely infectious during the procedure.”

“It’s clear some people no longer see the need to practice safe distancing or to wear face coverings in indoor spaces where safe distancing can’t be assured,” Chandler said.

The department has found others who aren’t following quarantine and isolation recommendations, he said. He has “big concerns” about the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, specifically citing a large event planned in Seward.

“In the population, there are people with COVID running around in circulation, and the sneaky thing about COVID is people can have the infection but may have no symptoms,” Chandler said.

“We’re all tired of COVID-19,” he said. “We wish it would go away. But it’s still here and spreading and almost all of us are not immune.”

The Municipality of Anchorage tracks a set of metrics, such as hospital capacity and case transmission rates, that influence its decisions on pandemic-related measures. If those metrics move from yellow to red, reflecting an increased strain on resources to prevent the spread of the virus, Berkowitz said there could be “targeted” mask mandates for certain activities. Those likely wouldn’t extend to outdoor activities, but the first step would be requiring masks in confined indoor spaces, he said.

“Almost all the studies that exist out there, all the experts that I have heard from who have studied the issue ... say that masking up makes a difference,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz said wearing masks in large numbers has been a hugely successful method worldwide of controlling the spread of COVID-19.

This week, mask mandates were issued in Oregon and California. Berkowitz said he’s watching such decisions by other jurisdictions to see what the mandates look like and how they are being enforced.

”We are learning from each other, city to city, because there are no national standards,” he said. “The lack of national standards makes it incredibly difficult for all of us.”

After pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and gatherings eased through May, daily virus case counts and active case numbers rose in Anchorage and Alaska to record highs — but “hunker down”-style mandates have not returned.

When asked why business closures were imposed when the virus was just getting a footing in the community, he said it was to prevent what could have been a catastrophic first wave. Berkowitz said some estimates found that doing nothing could have resulted in 5,000 deaths in Anchorage.

“It’s my understanding that we might have been the first city in the country to go into a hunker down or stay-at-home mode before there was community spread,” Berkowitz said. “Moving quickly and moving strongly as a community allowed us to minimize the harm that COVID had here.”

As of Friday there were 123 active cases of COVID-19 in Anchorage, with 38 cases that occurred between June 11 and June 17, including five seafood industry workers and three visitors or tourists who were from out of state, said city health department director Pineda.

New cases reported statewide

On Friday, the state reported that 26 people received positive COVID-19 test results, including 14 Alaska residents and 12 people from out of state. Of the 12 nonresidents, 11 work in the seafood industry, including seven workers in the Bristol Bay plus the Lake and Peninsula region.

In total, 722 Alaskans and 101 nonresidents have tested positive since the pandemic began, according to state health department data.

The new cases among Alaska residents include six people from Anchorage as well as one case each involving residents of Homer, Fairbanks, North Pole, a smaller community within the Bethel Census Area, Big Lake, Palmer and the North Slope.

A North Slope resident who initially tested negative for COVID-19 in a rapid test later tested positive for the virus during confirmatory testing, the Arctic Slope Native Association said in a statement Friday. A similar scenario unfolded earlier this week: The association said a traveler from Anchorage whose rapid test at the Utqiaġvik airport generated a negative result later tested positive in confirmatory testing.

Statewide, four more people with the virus were hospitalized as of Friday, including two from the Providence Transitional Care Center, an Anchorage care facility in the midst of the Alaska’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

The state reports hospitalizations and new cases based on the previous 24 hours, but the two hospitalizations from Providence did not happen Thursday, the state’s health department said.

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