Ketchikan officials urge calm while police investigate individual who broke COVID-19 quarantine

A view of downtown Ketchikan. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Authorities in Ketchikan are urging calm after announcing that several social events and public spaces were visited by a traveler who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Emergency Manager Abner Hoage took to Facebook Wednesday with a personal appeal.

“I know many of you are angry, hurt, disappointed and even scared about the impact this may have in our community. I am, too,” he said.

He’s referring to a statement from his office a day earlier. It had warned of the potential for “wide community spread” of coronavirus. That’s after an unnamed visitor arrived last Saturday and instead of quarantining while test results were pending, reportedly hit the town.

“While I don’t support the actions of this individual, now is not the time to express words of anger toward someone who made a few bad choices, but rather the time to support them and others in our community who are impacted,” Hoage said.

Ketchikan Police Lieutenant Andy Berntson said that investigators are taking a particular interest in the individual’s actions after their positive test results came back Tuesday.

“The charge of reckless endangerment — if that’s a charge that a prosecutor would look at, those are facts that they’re going to want to have, as far as, when did this person know? And what did they do afterwards? It also speaks to their responsibility and intent,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.

Berntson says the police investigation is separate from a state public health contact investigation.

“We don’t want to put [contact tracers] in a position where they’re going to violate any trust and then vice versa with us,” he said. “Our investigations are independent with two very different goals.”

In his recorded statement, Hoage emphasized that Ketchikan is prepared to deal with a widespread outbreak.

“We have testing available, we have PPE available, our healthcare system is strong and ready, and our Public Health officials have done many contact investigations and are very proficient at identifying and quarantining those who are at risk,” Hoage said.

For example: Ketchikan’s emergency operations center offers free coronavirus testing at a drive-through testing site. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, health professionals test anyone with even mild symptoms of COVID-19. People at high risk can be tested even without symptoms.

Approximately 100 people are being tested every week at a site set up by the emergency operations center. That’s just shy of 3% of Ketchikan’s population being tested per month. Ketchikan Medical Center has outlined plans to rapidly expand the number of available beds for COVID-19 patients.

And so far, contact investigations have been successful in Ketchikan: only one case has been attributed to so-called “community transmission,” a term epidemiologists use to describe cases that can’t be attributed to either travel or a known source.

Even still, the impacts of an infected person breaking quarantine are far-ranging: Ketchikan Public Utilities’ sole customer service office is closed. Ketchikan Little League announced it would suspend three divisions for at least two weeks. And “multiple city department heads and employees” are working from home, according to the emergency operations center.

Officials also asked anyone who went to a party where people didn’t stay at least six feet apart since Saturday, June 13 to consider a 14-day quarantine. Out of concern for the patient’s privacy, the emergency operations center has not released a list of parties or public spaces visited by the individual, even as throngs on social media continue to draw their own conclusions.

In his social media address, Hoage said the entire town has a responsibility to slow the spread of the virus.

“We are a small community, we are a caring community, and we are a resilient community,” he said. “We stopped the spread of COVID-19 before, and we can do it again if everyone does their part.”

Hoage says that means residents should wear a mask in public, wash hands frequently, keep your distance from others and social circles should remain relatively small.

“These are difficult times for everyone, so please stay safe and be kind. We’re all in this together. Stay strong, Ketchikan,” he said.

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