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Unalaska Schools Close, City Moves To 'High Risk' Following Confirmed Community Spread Of COVID-19

Berett Wilber/KUCB

Updated on 11/30/2020 at 6:30 p.m.

Unalaska's classrooms will close Tuesday as the district moves to distance learning.

That's after city officials confirmed two new COVID-19 cases from community spread Monday and said there's "potential widespread exposure" to the virus in the community.

The city has also raised the COVID-19 risk factor to "high" under the island's multi-agency Unified Command guidelines.

Both of the newly announced cases are in unnamed people who arrived in Unalaska last week and tested positive Monday at the local clinic, according to City Manager Erin Reinders. One had direct contact with multiple other people in the community over the holiday weekend, Reinders said.

"That creates a situation of potential widespread exposure, and that's where we triggered that higher risk level," she said.

Authorities are now tracing the infected people's contacts, she added, but declined to say how many close contacts they've identified.

Now that the community is at the high risk threshold, its next step is twofold, Reinders said: Organizations and city facilities will be enacting their COVID-19 mitigation plans and the City Council will consider imposing additional health mandates.

City facilities like the parks and recreation building and the library will close to the public, and departments will be open by appointment only, Reinders said. The landfill will remain open, and the police and fire departments' 24-hour operations will continue as well, she added.

The city is planning a special City Council meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. Reinders is recommending that councilors consider three additional health measures.

"Specifically, we'll be looking at a community hunker down order — basically staying at home as much as possible," she said. "We'll be looking at limiting the size of public gatherings — so keeping your meetings small, and that sort of thing. And then also looking at temporarily closing in-person services at bars and restaurants and really stressing the curbside pick up or takeout orders. We're trying not to close everything, but kind of limit that face-to-face contact as much as possible."

Unalaska City School District Superintendent John Conwell announced the closure of local schools in an email to families Monday afternoon, a measure triggered by the community's high risk threshold.

School staff will be calling or emailing students and families to discuss schedules and expectations, Conwell added.

"We sure hoped to have made it all the way to Christmas break. I'm feeling a little disappointed that we're having to do this," he said. "But we're ready and we've been planning for it, and we appreciate people's patience."

The district is still in the process of putting modems in students' homes so they can access the school's network, with about 75% of installations completed as of Monday, Conwell said.

He said he hopes Unalaska will follow public health advice to help get students back to their classrooms.

"I'm hoping that we can get back on track," he said. "That we can get folks to follow quarantine, wear masks, regularly wash their hands, keep their distance, and we can tamp this down."

Conwell recommended that students and families remain flexible, calm and patient as they start with distance learning, and he asked that they wait for teachers to reach out with further instructions.

Reinders echoed Conwell's recommendation to follow local protective measures and CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of the virus. 

"I think it's important to remain calm, and to recognize that we are really positioned well, and we have been behaving in a safe way for a long time now," she said. "We really have protective measures in place that I think have served our community well, and now is the time to really remember that and fully embrace them and to remain diligent in doing them."

Monday's announcement comes as cases surge across the state and hospital capacity runs tight. It's important that Unalaskans remain diligent and remember that Unalaska is the largest community in the state without a critical access hospital, Reinders said.

"We're all connected here, throughout the state and, frankly, the nation and the globe," she said. "So when there's a real draw on the health care system in Anchorage — which includes the hospitals, which includes the medevacs — that has a trickle down impact on all of us that are more remote and need to depend on some of the services that Anchorage provides."

Unalaska confirmed its first case of community spread earlier this month, which would have triggered a move to the high risk threshold under the community's original response plan.

But Unalaska's Unified Command chose to stay at a medium risk level and adapted its risk thresholds because they determined that the positive case was an isolated event.

The city will consider stepping back down to the medium risk level once two weeks go by without a new COVID-19 case stemming from community spread, Reinders said.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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