State health officials gauge local COVID-readiness

Coworkers of infected cannery employee tested negative

From left, Dr. Robert Onders, Heidi Hedberg, Dr. Anne Zink, Darrel Olsen, Dr. Hannah Sanders, Ben Stevens and Dr. Alexander Eastman at Cordova Community Medical Center. (May 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

A group of visiting public health officials toured Cordova’s health care facilities Wednesday, May 13. The visit gave state and federal officials an opportunity to observe the challenges facing Cordova in devising a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The collaboration between the city and NVE on emergency response has been pretty amazing, and I think people are seeing that,” said Dr. Hannah Sanders, medical director for Cordova Community Medical Center. “But they also got to see what the limitations are of living in rural Alaska… I think that’s important for doctors who are decision-makers in supplies and equipment and planning. I think it made a really big difference for them to be here on the ground.”

The visiting group included Dr. Alexander Eastman, senior medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Jeff Birks, Eastman’s chief of staff; Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska chief medical officer; Heidi Hedberg, Alaska director of public health; Ben Stevens, chief of staff for Gov. Mike Dunleavy; and Dr. Robert Onders, medical director for community and health systems improvement with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

The group toured CCMC and Ilanka Community Health Center, accompanied by Sanders, Mayor Clay Koplin, City Manager Helen Howarth and CCMC Authority Board Chairman Greg Meyer. The visit will help state and federal authorities form a better understanding of what kind of reinforcement Cordova would need to manage a possible surge in coronavirus cases, Sanders said.

Despite arriving from outside Alaska, Eastman, as a medical professional, was permitted to move about the community without being required to self-quarantine. However, Koplin said he planned to be tested following the visit as a precaution after having contact with an out-of-state visitor.

A fishing vessel enters Cordova Harbor. (May 12, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cannery worker appears isolated case

All employees who were in contact with a coronavirus-positive Ocean Beauty Seafoods worker have tested negative, Koplin said. As of May 8, the individual was reported to still be asymptomatic.

“It’s looking more and more like an isolated, and well isolated, case,” Koplin said.

All Cordova fish processors have submitted plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Although these plans are not identical to one another, all have been approved by the state, Koplin said.

Implementing screening measures similar to Ocean Beauty, Trident Seafoods will require employees to undergo coronavirus testing before leaving Anchorage for Cordova, said Shannon Carroll, Trident’s associate director of public policy, in an interview with Cordova Radio. After arriving in Cordova, Trident fishermen will minimize contact with the community, he said.

“We feel like we’re well prepared, but certainly taking this very seriously,” Carroll said.

Trident distinguished itself by developing robust anti-coronavirus plans early, although these plans were initially frustrated by a shortage of reliable testing supplies, Koplin said.

Free drive-up coronavirus testing is currently available to anyone who’s arrived in Cordova within the previous 14 days. This testing is available on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m. at Ilanka Community Health Center, and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2-4 p.m. at the CCMC ambulance bay. Residents seeking testing should call ahead to Ilanka Community Health Center at 424-3622 and CCMC at 424-8000. If you’re unavailable during the designated times, it’s also possible to arrange an appointment by phone, Howarth said.

“We encourage the community to look at testing as a positive progress,” said Howarth at a Tuesday, May 12 press conference. “It empowers our community and the medical team to really understand where our community is and how we can keep ourselves safe… We want the fleet to remember that we are only as healthy and strong as they are, and their compliance is certainly appreciated.”

From left, Mayor Clay Koplin has his temperature checked by emergency room nurses Keith Kroll and Luke Cronick. (May 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

City continues measured reopening

As Cordova shifts from “red light” to “yellow light” status, local anti-coronavirus restrictions have loosened, permitting gatherings of up to 20 people and allowing non-essential businesses to operate at reduced capacity. A Monday, May 11 state health mandate rescinded restrictions on travel within Alaska, permitting travel between communities on the road system or marine highway system.

However, some local restrictions persist, such as the requirement that arrivals from outside Alaska, including Cordova residents, self-isolate for 14 days. Residents are also still required to wear masks while on the docks and floats of Cordova Harbor and while inside public buildings and at business venues, including gas stations.

“I know we’re nine weeks into this,” Koplin said in a May 12 interview with Cordova Radio. “It’s hard to maintain a level of vigilance, but, this week in particular, as we get the fishery started off and we have a lot of activity in close proximity, it’s important to follow those rules.”

Residents seem to have been largely respectful of public health mandates, Sanders said. Anyone who feels they may have experienced a high risk of exposure, such as employees of public-facing businesses, is invited to seek testing, Sanders said.

The city will discontinue its Friday public health updates after May 15, Howarth said. However, the city will continue to deliver livestreamed updates on Tuesdays as well as regular briefs on Cordova Radio.