State overrules Wrangell, says it can’t add its own COVID-19 restrictions

Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014.
Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by James Brooks)

Wrangell’s proposed restrictions on people arriving at the island community have been shelved after the state said the Southeast city doesn’t have the authority. City leaders had wanted to coordinate the flow of commercial fishermen and fish plant workers expected to arrive for the season.

A state health mandate restricts all nonessential travel except to workers in critical industries. That mandate supersedes local restrictions. But it allows smaller, isolated towns with limited health care facilities to add restrictions to ward against an outbreak of COVID-19.

In Wrangell, commercial salmon fishing gets going in mid-June. Around that time more than 30 seasonal fish plant workers from out-of-state work in Wrangell’s sole fish processor. The plant manager says the workers will self-quarantine for 14 days before coming into town.

Elected officials wanted copies of mitigation plans that employers in critical industries – skippers and processors – have filed with the state to secure exemptions to travel restrictions. So far state public officials haven’t shared these plans with local authorities.

That doesn’t sit well with assembly member David Powell. He says a few infected people arriving in Wrangell could snowball.

“And then all of a sudden we could have 10 to 20 cases in here because we didn’t do something,” Powell says.

He wants to see these local mandates in place as soon as possible. But the city recently got word from the state that it lacks the authority to make its own rules.

On Wednesday, an email arrived from the state’s unified command stating that Wrangell Medical Center qualifies as a “hub” hospital as defined in the health mandate.

That frustrated Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka. Wrangell’s hospital is run by the tribal health organization SEARHC – whose regional hub hospital for COVID-19 cases is Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center in Sitka.

But the mayor says — in the state’s eyes at least — his island town of 2,400 people is not a “small community” since it has a hub hospital.

“We just don’t meet that, and it doesn’t matter what SEARHC thinks it is, all that matters is what the state says it is,” Prysunka says.

The measure ultimately failed 5-2. The assembly did not want to move forward and risk legal action from the state or industries down the line. But Powell was among those that wanted to keep pushing.

“I still feel that this is still critical to the safety of our community and that there is no reason why we would not take action,” he says.

The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported this month that Cordova enacted restrictions similar to what Wrangell had proposed. And the two are very similar communities. Both are off the road system, have fewer than 3,000 residents and have health care facilities categorized as “critical access hospitals,” which the state classifies as hub hospitals.

The seafood industry has been watching this unfold in a number of fishing towns across Alaska.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach says the industry isn’t taking its exemptions for granted. The fishing fleet is working to take steps to minimize any health risks.

“We respect and appreciate the communities for hosting us every summer, and we’re working diligently on letting the communities know it is a concern,” Leach says.

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