Police chief who failed to quarantine linked to virus outbreak

Chief who later tested positive coached children’s wrestling 1 day after returning from trip

Police Chief Nate Taylor. (Sept. 23, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Updated Wednesday, March 3.

By failing to follow social distancing rules, Cordova Police Chief Nate Taylor contributed to a coronavirus outbreak that closed schools and set back reopening efforts, city officials said. Taylor was placed on paid administrative leave Monday, March 1.

“It was a serious lapse in judgment,” City Manager Helen Howarth said. “Our daycares are closed. We have public facilities down. We’re back in a place we never wanted to be… I apologize on behalf of the city for the actions of one of our employees. I’m horrified and dismayed, and every other sad word that I can think of.”

On Feb. 16, Taylor, along with family members, returned to Cordova from a one-week trip, Taylor confirmed. While Alaska does not legally require arriving travelers to self-isolate, a city of Cordova policy implemented in August 2020 requires returning city employees to practice strict social distancing for a minimum of seven days. According to this policy, resident travelers who obtain a negative test result upon arriving must either follow strict social distancing for 14 days after arrival, or until receiving a second negative test result taken between seven and 14 days after arrival in Alaska.

Strict social distancing, as defined by the policy, prohibits the traveler from entering restaurants, bars, sporting facilities and office buildings except to fulfill his or her duties as a city employee. However, Howarth said the city intends to reduce the minimum length of social distancing to five days, in accordance with recommendations by local health care providers.

Feb. 17, one day after returning to Cordova, Taylor coached a Cordova Pounders youth wrestling club event at the Cordova Moose Lodge. Moose Lodge manager Steve Johnson said staff were unaware that anyone participating in the wrestling event was breaking public health guidelines. The event was confined to the upstairs section of the building, away from the venue’s busier ground-floor bar area, Johnson said. Both floors of the venue were thoroughly sanitized as soon as it became apparent that there was a risk of coronavirus transmission, he said.

“I had no inkling about it until after the fact,” Johnson said. “We’ve tried to be as health-conscious and as safe as possible… We would never, ever do anything to put this community into jeopardy, ever.”

Taylor also attended a Feb. 18 city staff meeting. Meeting attendees wore masks and sat at chairs that were placed at least 6 feet apart from the chairs of other attendees. Taylor tested positive for the coronavirus Feb. 20, four days after returning to Cordova. The city first became alerted to Taylor’s positive test through public word of mouth, and not through direct communication from Taylor, Howarth said.

Taylor was surprised by the positive test result, he said.

“Obviously, it was a mistake, and regrettable,” Taylor said Wednesday, Feb. 24. “If you live life long enough, you’re bound to make a mistake now and then. I’m thankful for our community. I’m thankful for our response team, and all the plans that are in place.”

Not following social distancing rules was an oversight, Taylor said. In a Friday, Feb. 26 public letter, Taylor wrote, “I know I have breached a trust placed in me by this city and I will work tirelessly to earn that trust back. I love this town, I love the people, and I love what I do. I am wishing a speedy recovery to everyone affected, and… am deeply sorry for my role in this outbreak.”

Following his positive test result, Taylor experienced flu-like symptoms. Taylor declined to disclose whether he had received a coronavirus vaccine. As a first responder, Taylor would have been among the first people eligible for vaccination from Cordova health care providers.

A Mt. Eccles Elementary School classroom. (March 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

In the nine days following Taylor’s return to Cordova, 19 cases of the novel coronavirus were identified, nine of which were students at Mt. Eccles Elementary School or Cordova Jr./Sr. High School. Prior to this, there had been no new cases announced since Feb. 9, and the number of active cases had fallen to zero. As a result of the outbreak, classes were moved online beginning Feb. 24. More than 15 school staff, and roughly 100 students, were later identified as having shared an environment with an individual who tested positive for the coronavirus, Superintendent Alex Russin said in a statement. However, as of Tuesday, March 2, investigations had revealed no virus spread associated with school operations, Russin said.

A Monday, March 1 student testing clinic organized by Cordova Community Medical Center and Ilanka Community Health Center tested more than 200 individuals. The clinic yielded no evidence of school-based virus transmission, said CCMC medical director Dr. Hannah Sanders.

The Cordova-based U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir was forced to abort a trip to Southeast Alaska when three crew members were identified as close contacts to the outbreak, Alaska Public Media reported March 2. Two of those crew members later tested positive for the coronavirus. The outbreak serves as a reminder of the importance of remaining vigilant even when active cases are at zero, Mayor Clay Koplin said.

“It’s obviously disturbing to learn that a city employee and family’s actions resulted in a major outbreak, the largest outbreak we have yet had, of COVID in our community,” Howarth said. “I don’t think this was done maliciously or intentionally, but we’ve been learning for the past year what to do to protect our community and our family and our workplace… I don’t want to use the word ‘unconscionable,’ but it almost is.”

Net Loft sales associate Shelby Stoltzfus-Avis arranges skeins of yarn. (Jan. 5, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The unprecedented rise in infections also set back businesses which had followed a cautious strategy of reopening as vaccines were deployed. The Net Loft crafting store, which had reopened for walk-in business about two weeks prior, closed its doors again in response to the outbreak. Though The Net Loft, with its handicrafts and colorful skeins of yarn, is an iconic presence in Cordova, the store has struggled through 11 months of both mandatory and voluntary health restrictions. The sudden outbreak dealt an additional blow to a business already stretched thin, owner Dotty Widmann said.

“What do we learn from this experience?” Widmann asked. “We can’t go backwards, so what can we do now? We wear our masks and we wash our hands and we act as if everybody around us is positive… That’s just what we do until this thing is out.”

Widmann requires employees to wait five days before coming in to work after they’ve returned from travel, including short trips to Anchorage. Although measures like these have at times left The Net Loft short-staffed, and impacted its bottom line, they’re the best long-term choice for the store, Widmann said.

“We’re going to err on the side of safety and care and if it means money out of my pocket, that’s what it means for now,” Widmann said. “Someday we’ll be through this and, hopefully, we will know in our conscience that we did everything we could.”

Other venues that partially or completely restricted public traffic for a period following the outbreak include Children’s Pallas childcare center, Christian Center Preschool, the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, Cordova Community Baptist Church, the Cordova Family Resource Center, St. George’s Episcopal Church and the Ilanka Cultural Center.