As COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, spreads throughout the world and Lower 48, there have been no confirmed cases in Alaska yet, but the state and local governments are working to prepare for the inevitable.
The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole met Monday night to discuss emergency action plans, the impending arrival of the Westerdam and the effects the virus will have on the cruise ship tourism industry, which is scheduled to begin April 24 in Juneau.
“We are trying to do the best we can and you’ll hear from public health officials about reducing the spread,” Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski said. “Please do be kind to one another. There’s a lot of fear… we’re trying to do what we can to input information to reduce the fear and have fact-based responses to what’s happening.”
Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss said they would consider shutting down schools, but like elsewhere in the country, they only want to do that as a last resort since many students rely on going to school to eat, she said.
School staff are teaching kids proper hand washing and taking preventative measures like identifying medically fragile students or staff so the district is poised and ready to support and respond.
Another measure they are taking at schools is to have staff enter in pins for lunch, that way kids aren’t all touching the same number pad before eating. Weiss said it will slow down the line, but they are really trying to find preventative measures.
Assembly members said they received a lot of emails with concern about the impending arrival of the Westerdam, a ship which had been refused entry from several ports in Asia. But Holland America Line Vice President Ralph Samuels said the media was misinformed about the Westerdam. Every single person was tested who was on the ship after a passenger was thought to be infected, he said at the meeting. It was later determined that the person was not infected.
Since all of the 500-600 crew members onboard tested negative, and have essentially been in a 30 day quarantine as they travel from Asia to Juneau, he said there really shouldn’t be a worry about them bringing the virus to town, since symptoms for the virus are said to show up within 14 days.
“We will not have a crew change in Hawaii, if anything changes, I will contact the City Manager first,” Samuels said. “By the time the crew gets to Juneau, they will have all been tested and been on the ship for a month.”
City Manager Rorie Watt said there is a medical director on board the ship and several nurses, and they have a duty to report any illnesses resembling COVID-19 to the CDC.
In regards to people who are concerned about the ship itself being contaminated Samuels said: “You’re going to have 500 people on that ship with nothing to do but clean it.”
There’s been no one to expose those crew to anyone but themselves since Feb. 19, said Kirby Day, Princess Cruises director of shore operations. “We understand the angst that the community is in… we’re willing to be part of the solution to this,” Samuels said.
There were several tour operators in the crowd who were hoping for answers about expected passenger counts, but CLIA representatives declined to cite any specific numbers. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Rain Coast Data estimated that Southeast Alaska would receive around 1.44 million cruise ship visitors, and the tourism industry would generate about a quarter billion dollars in revenue for the industry. Likely, the virus will affect those numbers since the CDC currently advises people to avoid cruise travel. It would be hard to predict how much lower those numbers will be at this point in time, since most cruise lines are currently operating under a 24-hour refund policy, and the situation is changing daily.
“It’s not just our cruise ship that is an area of possible exposure,” said Southeast Alaska Regional Nurse Manager Sarah Hargrave. “People are moving in and out of Juneau every day. Regardless of how a virus gets to Juneau our goal is really to slow the spread.”
Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO Chuck Bill said the hospital has 63,000 gloves and about 10,000 different masks on hand, which is enough for two months at the hospital.
“We’re taking this seriously,” Bill said. “We’ve got a serious plan… but the reality in my mind is we really need to pay attention and not overwhelm the system.”
The overwhelming message from the meeting: get your flu shot, wash your hands, and call ahead to the hospital if you think you have symptoms and plan to come in for testing.
“One person showing up with symptoms without a phone call takes two (nurses) out of the game,” said CBJ Emergency Program Manager Tom Mattice.
“Wash your hands and clean not out of fear, but out of compassion… clean so someone in a vulnerable population doesn’t get sick,” City Manager Rorie Watt said. “That compassionate view really steers you to do the right thing. You literally can’t wash your hands too many times.”