Physicians object to Juneau’s coronavirus quarantine exemptions

A mine vehicle enters the Kensington Portal on Oct. 15, 2019.
A mine vehicle enters the Kensington Portal on Oct. 15, 2019. It’s one of two accesses for a network of about 28 miles of underground tunnels. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Update (Wednesday, March 25, 3:56 p.m.) — Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska

Employees and contract workers at Kensington Mine will now be required to spend 14 days in quarantine in a Juneau hotel if they arrive from outside Alaska or a coronavirus-infected community. The move follows a similar protocol by Hecla Greens Creek Mine. (Read more)

Original story

Doctors are criticizing Juneau’s elected officials for carving out broad exemptions to the city’s new coronavirus quarantine rules.

As originally written, the Juneau Assembly’s emergency resolution would institute a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from out-of-state or from a community with confirmed coronavirus cases.

But Juneau’s two largest private employers objected.

“The mandated quarantine is problematic for business,” Mike Satre of Hecla Greens Creek Mine told the Assembly on Sunday. “We have many of our workers who come from throughout Alaska as well as Outside.”

He penned a letter on behalf of the mine seeking an exemption as a “critical industry.”

Coeur Alaska — which operates Kensington Mine — also warned that the quarantine would impact its 383-person operation as the company brings in out-of-state workers who work in two-week shifts.

“Passage of any resolutions restricting the ability of our workforce to travel to and/or work at the mine would have severe unintended consequences for operations,” Kensington’s General Manager Mark Kiessling wrote in a letter to elected officials.

The Assembly heard these concerns and acted: By a one-vote margin, it added exemptions using the federal government’s guidance on “essential critical infrastructure workers.”

That includes miners. And health care workers.

But Bartlett Regional Hospital’s medical staff are observing the quarantine anyway.

Dr. Steven Greer divides his time between Oregon and Juneau. He flew into town last Wednesday, so it’ll be about a week before he can start seeing patients.

And he said he’s not going back to Oregon any time soon.

“I told my wife goodbye and said, ‘I’ll see you down the road when all this is over,’” he told CoastAlaska by phone on Monday. “I can’t travel anymore, because every time I travel, I’d have to go into quarantine.”

He’s among several doctors that penned a letter to Assembly members urging them to rethink exempting industries.

“My recommendation is if the miners want to work, that they should come up and stay and not go back south until this thing is over,” he added.

Already one of the mines has reversed itself.

On Monday, Greens Creek sent a memo to its workforce saying everyone arriving into Juneau first be quarantined for 14 days at a local hotel. The mine is moving to a 28-day shift to accommodate the change.

A spokesperson for Coeur Alaska said Kensington Mine is considering “other options,” including moving to longer shifts.

In a statement, Bartlett Regional Hospital’s CEO Chuck Bill wrote that, “for the public good the travel quarantine needs to be as restrictive as possible for the time being.”

That’s what hospital doctors have been saying.

“We have a disaster coming, and it’s like we’re watching the tsunami come,” said Dr. Joanne Gartenberg, who runs Bartlett’s behavioral health section. “But this time, we can actually mitigate the tsunami — we can make choices.”

She said the only effective way to slow the spread of coronavirus is to not travel.

One of the physicians in her section had been commuting from Arizona, where he has a wife and young son.

“And he’s really facing being separated (from) his family now for several months, really — it’s a really difficult choice,” she said. “But he made the right choice, because he wants to protect Juneau, wants to protect himself, and he wants to be here to be able to treat our population.”

It isn’t clear what other exempted industries will continue to function. The federal guidelines give broad latitude to the fishing industry, government workers, the energy sector and others.

Marijuana business owners had appealed to the Juneau Assembly for an exemption as well. That’s because federal prohibition on mailing cannabis requires individuals to courier product within the state. But cannabis suppliers aren’t included in the federal exemptions for critical businesses, nor did the Assembly add them.

 

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