Unalaska boosts COVID risk level after potential spread at weekend festivals

Downtown Unalaska. City officials said wastewater testing had recently shown an uptick in COVID-19 positivity. They also said they’re on guard after two major public festivals last weekend brought residents together in close quarters. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The City of Unalaska confirmed what it called a “widespread community exposure” of COVID-19 on Tuesday, after identifying two new community-acquired cases of the virus.

City officials said wastewater testing had recently shown an uptick in COVID-19 positivity. They also said they’re on guard after two major public festivals last weekend brought residents together in close quarters.

In response to the new cases, the city has raised its COVID-19 risk level to high and closed certain municipal buildings to the public.

Despite the uptick in cases, the city isn’t mandating any extra public health protocols. However, the city council will meet next Tuesday to review community-wide protective measures.

City Hall and the public library are also temporarily closing to the public, while the pool and Community Center will remain open at limited capacity, and by appointment only.

Other local organizations, like the Museum of the Aleutians, have also temporarily closed.

Unalaska’s schools still opened for the first day of classes Wednesday. But district officials said that face masks will be required at all times, in light of the recent spike in cases. Unalaska City School District families were notified of the change on Tuesday. Prior to the increase in local cases, students had the option to wear masks at school.

The island recently saw one of its busiest weekends since the start of the pandemic, with two community events taking place. One was the Aleutian Electrocution, an annual metal art, music and dance festival held at the end of Captains Bay Road.

The other was the city’s annual Heart of the Aleutians festival, a community event where local vendors sell food and artwork, and Unalaskans gather for lip-syncing and food-eating contests.

Unalaska Fire Chief and acting Incident Commander Patrick Shipp said while there are only two community-acquired cases confirmed, local officials are aware that the island is vulnerable in the wake of those public events.

“It was a really busy weekend on the island, and people were all out and together,” Shipp said. “We just want to make sure that we don’t have this huge outbreak of positive cases.”

Shipp said the shift to a higher risk level is a chance to find out how widely the virus is spreading in Unalaska.

“What we’re doing right now is kind of just taking a pause and seeing what’s next,” Shipp said. “We don’t know a lot. And we’re hoping the next few days will tell us [more].”

This is the first time the city has returned to the high COVID risk level since late April.

As of Tuesday evening, the city was reporting a total of six active cases of COVID-19 in Unalaska, half of which are travel-related. Two of the remaining three are community spread, while just one is industry-related. At least three of the recent cases were vaccinated individuals, said Shipp.

The new cases were detected after multiple people asked to be tested at the local clinic, Iliuliuk Family and Health Services, said Melanee Tiura, the clinic’s chief executive.

Others were tested because they were exposed to someone who had previously tested positive.

While the positive tests have not yet been analyzed, Tiura said it’s very likely these are cases of the delta variant, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spreads about twice as fast as other forms of the coronavirus.

Delta represented 88% of all the positive tests analyzed by Alaska’s public health labs in the state’s most recent variant report.

“Most of the cases in the state are delta, so the likelihood that this is delta is very, very high. It’s almost a guarantee,” Tiura said. “So, we expect it will move faster than our previous cases.”

Tiura said local officials were first aware of a COVID spike when it was found in the island’s wastewater over the weekend, but that didn’t correlate with known cases at the time. Local officials will continue to test and track levels of the virus in wastewater to see how it corresponds to the currently known cases.

In the meantime, Tiura said that if people are feeling sick with even just mild symptoms, they should get tested and stay home.

“This is our time to do what we can do, short of a mandate,” she said. “We’re all making those decisions that will help to allow this to just fizzle out. And I would say it’s going to take a couple-week window here, kind of a washout period, where we know there’s exposure, we know there’ll be more positive [cases].”

Unalaska’s outbreak comes on the heels of a recent case uptick in the Aleutians East Borough, which has reported 27 confirmed cases since July 16.

Those cases were mainly in the community of Sand Point, said Paul Mueller, Chief Executive of Eastern Aleutian Tribes.

“The rest of the Aleutians East Borough region has not seen a huge uptick. I think we had one case in King Cove back at the end of July,” Mueller said. “So, really, we’ve only seen the uptick in Sand Point, and that was at a community gathering.”

Sand Point City Administrator Jordan Keeler said the rate of new infections appears to be declining, and that only one new case was reported over the past seven days — a steep drop from the 15 cases reported over the preceding seven days.

Mueller urged travelers to exercise caution when visiting communities in the region.

“We’re not going to be able to stop people from traveling,” he said. “But we can ask them, urge them, beg them to be safe. Mask up, get tested before you come back into the region.”

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