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Coronavirus infection cluster linked to Anchorage youth hockey tournament that drew hundreds

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Anchorage health officials said Friday that they are investigating a cluster of coronavirus infections linked to a youth hockey tournament this month that drew teams from around Alaska and several hundred people.

More than 300 players, coaches and fans attended the Termination Dust Invitational hosted by the Anchorage Hockey Association at the Ben Boeke and Dempsey Anderson arenas over a three-day period last weekend, officials said. Teams came from Anchorage, Eagle River, Chugiak, Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, Soldotna, Fairbanks and Juneau.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many people have tested positive for COVID-19 in conjunction with the tournament. Municipal health officials did not provide any specifics at a briefing Friday.

Tournament organizers said they first learned of a positive case on one of the teams on Monday and said they knew of two teams with a positive case each.

Alaska’s COVID-19 daily case counts are rising steeply, especially in Anchorage. Health officials blame community spread, especially in gatherings outside households, as the principal driver. Sports events are starting to show the disruptive reach of the virus in quarantines and cancellations.

The Alaska State Hockey Association said Friday there have been multiple positive cases among players, parents and coaches involved with teams in multiple parts of the state.

“We are barely several weeks into the fall season and there have been multiple positive cases, in several areas of the State, with players, parents and coaches,” Anna Culley, the association’s COVID-19 chairman, said in a Facebook post.

Ben Boeke Ice Arena. (ADN archive, 2020)

The Termination Dust participants who tested positive Monday must have had the virus before the tournament started, said Theresa Austin, president of the Anchorage Hockey Association.

“If the incubation period for the virus is five to seven days, that means there were infected people in attendance at the tournament that had no idea they were infected,” Austin said Friday.

Health officials are urging any participants experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to isolate from others at home for 10 days and get tested. People not experiencing symptoms should quarantine at home for two weeks except to get tested.

Contact investigations indicate “significant close contact in indoor spaces, including locker rooms, with inconsistent use of face coverings,” officials said in a statement.

Austin said the Anchorage Hockey Association worked with the municipality before the season started to develop a COVID-19 mitigation plan that included limiting spectators to parents only and holding attendance at rinks to 25% of capacity or less.

“We have done everything we possibly could do, including our sanitizing and cleaning of all surfaces,” she said. “But also I believe we were probably leading the way as far as hockey was concerned.”

Asked at a briefing Friday if the city planned to close rinks, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said it’s possible the city could decide some activities are too risky to support, but people also need physical activity.

“It’s just a continual reminder of how pervasive COVID is and how it can strike at any time,” Berkowitz said, after saying he was encouraged by the steps the hockey association took to reduce the spread of the virus.

Last week, a few days before the tournament began, the association sent hockey families an email explaining procedures to minimize exposure to the virus. Participants were asked to send a list of people attending to help with contact tracing in case of an outbreak.

They were also asked to avoid walking between the rinks, stay at least 6 feet from non-household members, and follow social-distancing stickers if next to the glass surrounding the rink.

“All children will be required to be with their family,” the email said. “They should not be running around the rink or left at the rink without a guardian.”

At least one participant at the tournament said they saw many people wearing masks, especially early in the tournament, but many families ignored social-distancing stickers at Dempsey, where the only way to see the action on the ice was to crowd against the glass. Children ran around unsupervised. Sunday’s championship looked like a normal hockey game. There was no one visibly enforcing any rules.

Asked if the association tried to enforce the rules, Austin likened the situation to being at Fred Meyer or Walmart, where people ignoring mask requirements aren’t generally confronted. It’s not like event organizers were going to physically remove people from the rink, she said. “What, ask them all if they’re all in the same household or please give yourselves enough space?”

The cluster was reported Wednesday, according to Janet Johnson, Anchorage Health Department epidemiologist. Late Tuesday, an Anchorage pediatrician shared testing and quarantine recommendations with parents on social media “as COVID is starting to hit the hockey community.”

The municipality decided to announce the cluster Friday due to the sheer number of people involved and the pressure that the ongoing case surge is already putting on contact tracing. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is helping with contact tracing, which helps control the spread of the virus by finding people who need to quarantine or get tested.

The city reported 725 new cases in the last 10 days, people still within the infectious period, Johnston said. There are 95 people on a list of contacts within the past week who still haven’t been called by busy public-health workers. After a week in the community, state health officials say, it’s practically useless to try to limit a potentially infected person’s movements.

The city’s health department director, Heather Harris, recommended hockey teams and programs follow best practices for COVID-19 protocols.

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The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on Friday announced that doctors from the state and Anchorage health departments this week strengthened their guidance, and now recommend all youth athletes wear masks when they’re playing or competing — even during vigorous activity.

The Anchorage School District this week reported that 14 teams were undergoing 14-day quarantine periods due to potential virus exposure from a teammate or coach. The district also issued a two-week stop to high school volleyball after multiple teams at a handful of schools reported COVID-19 illness, related symptoms or exposure.

At least two youth hockey associations — the South Anchorage Hockey Association and the Alaska Oilers Hockey Association — decided to shut down operations in Anchorage for the weekend. They could be back on the ice as early as Monday, according to Facebook posts by each group.

The Anchorage Hockey Association has shut down for two weeks, Austin said.

Most children who contract COVID-19 have mild, moderate or no symptoms and recover within one or two weeks, officials say. But those with medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness.

Symptoms can include: fever (higher than 100.4); dry cough; shortness of breath; chills; decreased appetite; diminished sense of taste or smell; diarrhea; fatigue; headache; muscle/joint aches; nausea, rash; runny nose; or sore throat. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure.

Friday’s announcement marks the latest coronavirus exposure location publicized by health officials in Anchorage. Over the summer, the city named more than a dozen bars where people “who were infectious with COVID-19 spent extended time."

The previous most recent exposure location was the Brother Francis Shelter, associated with a large outbreak in the city’s homeless population.

Daily News reporter Beth Bragg contributed to this story.

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