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Anchorage

Anchorage mayor seeks more targeted measures as health officials recommend that city prepare for return to ‘hunker down’

Natasha Pineda, director of the Anchorage Health Department (participating via videoconference at center), and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz speak during a community briefing on COVID-19 on June 19. (Screenshot)

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As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Anchorage, health officials are recommending that the city prepare to go back into a period of “hunker down.” The mayor said this week, however, that he didn’t think the city would implement the same shelter-in-place protocols that were in place in late March.

In a report to the city’s mayor and assembly dated July 24, Anchorage Health Department director Natasha Pineda wrote that while the department supports recent actions like Emergency Order 14, which restricts gathering sizes and limits capacity at a variety of establishments around the city, they’re likely not enough.

“The Municipality of Anchorage should prepare for moving to a ‘Hunker Down’ position to stop community transmission, to protect our residents (especially those most at risk), and the economy of our municipality,” the report says. “Please consider taking actions along the lines of early in the pandemic.”

In an emailed response to questions Tuesday, Pineda said the administration, health department, emergency operations center and others should “should start taking steps to review what we have learned so far in this pandemic, apply that knowledge to the current situation and discuss what activities should be allowable and what further protective measures should be put in place.”

Pineda said that the city’s reopening phases were initiated based on periods of low and medium transmission of COVID-19. But as the virus spreads throughout the city currently, there are indications that the risk for community transmission is high.

“In the health department’s view it is the time to apply the strategies we previously used to address those conditions,” Pineda said Tuesday.

In March, as cases of the illness rose in the city, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued a hunker down order, which stated residents must “stay at home as much as possible” except to work at critical jobs, shop for groceries, seek out health care or get fresh air.

“I don’t think we would ever do what we did in March,” Berkowitz said in an interview Tuesday, “because we’ve learned a lot about how COVID operates since then.”

Berkowitz said the city is considering several measures to protect public health, and they’re trying to reduce person-to-person interactions — but he would like to do things in a more targeted way. There are “finer ways of arriving at the same conclusion, or perhaps even a better conclusion,” Berkowitz said.

The mayor said he’s seeking more information about how the virus is spreading in the city. When Anchorage lost the ability to keep up with contact tracing, it hindered officials’ understanding of how COVID-19 is spreading in Anchorage, Berkowitz said.

“But as we are starting to see, the disease is everywhere,” he said.

Anchorage has surpassed the highest alert level defined by the state of Alaska, at more than 10 cases per 100,000 on average for the last 14 days, Pineda said. Anchorage’s average is 16.5 cases per 100,000 by that measure.

A sign requiring masks is affixed to the door of an office building on Thursday, July 23, 2020 in downtown Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Berkowitz administration, Anchorage Emergency Operations Center, city health department and others should take what they’ve learned so far and discuss what kind of activities to allow and whether to enact more protective measures, Pineda said.

Pineda noted that in addition to EO-14, which she said was necessary, Berkowitz has “helped ensure a strong testing program is coming online” and “approved more positions at the department to help with contact tracing.”

Berkowitz said he’s concerned whether the restrictions in his recent Emergency Order 14, which rolled back some reopening rules, were enough. The municipality also requires the wearing of face coverings in most indoor public settings.

“We have limited tools at our disposal,” Berkowitz said. “We can make recommendations or we can restrict the size of gatherings even further. We can close certain kinds of activities off entirely.”

And that’s why they’re seeking more information — in order to make “as discrete a decision as possible,” he said. But the mayor said he doesn’t have a lot of time to make such a decision.

Recently, public health officials said Anchorage had until Sept. 22 before it might overwhelm its intensive care unit bed capacity based on projections. That’s now Sept. 17, wrote Pineda, who is leaving the Anchorage Health Department next month and will be replaced by Heather Harris.

That initial projection only included Anchorage residents and didn’t account for people who might get transferred to the city to seek care.

As more parts of the state deal with COVID-19, it puts more pressure on Anchorage’s health care capacity, Berkowitz said.

Anchorage has also become a key focal point for several major seafood industry outbreaks, as employees from two outbreaks outside the city are completing their quarantine and isolation periods within the municipality. And the city is dealing with an outbreak among workers at a local processing plant where 76 of 135 employees had tested positive by Monday afternoon.

Berkowitz said those in Anchorage should do everything they can to shrink their social bubbles, wear masks and maintain at least 6 feet of distance from one another.

“We can shape our own destiny by having the discipline to do the right things now,” Berkowitz said. “And if we want to make sure that we are safe, that our economy stays open, it requires all of us acting together.”

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