Growing infection numbers, increased case rates and mask compliance were all topics of discussion during the Kenai City Council’s “Response to COVID-19” agenda item Wednesday night.
Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said at the Wednesday meeting that the first city employee tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend and that the city is working to determine how many others may have been exposed. Ostrander said that the employee’s symptoms “weren’t great for a while” but that they are doing better now.
In the last two weeks, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has reported 40 new cases in the City of Kenai and 138 cases in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Ostrander said that the central peninsula’s case rate jumped from four two weeks ago to 18 on Wednesday. Case rates refer to the number of cases seen over a certain period of time, usually either seven or 14 days, per 100,000 people.
Alaska’s seven-day case rate is 26, Ostrander said, which means Alaska has the 18th-highest case rate in the nation. Two weeks ago, Alaska had the 48th-highest case rate in the nation. If the Central Kenai Peninsula was ranked on the same scale, it would have the 24th-highest case rate.
“We’re no longer in a bubble,” Ostrander said. “We were in a bubble for a long time. We were probably one of the safest places in the nation to be. Not the case anymore.”
Ostrander also noted that nationwide about 290,000 more deaths have been recorded than previous years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted earlier this week that an estimated 299,000 more people died in the U.S. than usual between late January and Oct. 3. Ostrander said that the City of Kenai is taking COVID-19 “very seriously.”
“The thing we’re focused on and that we’re always focused on here is the health of our employees and trying to continue to make sure we can provide great service to the residents of this city,” Ostrander said. “I think to be able to do that while we’re seeing this surge in cases we need to continue to be very diligent in the things that we do here at the city.”
City Council Member Henry Knackstedt said that it might be time for the city to start “requiring, at least requesting” that people wear masks inside of city buildings, but said that trying to enforce a mask requirement could be a problem.
“I’m in a position now where — you know, with the number of cases that we have in this state — I know people that have it, have recovered from it, are sick with it, and I didn’t before,” Knackstedt said. “I didn’t know anyone that knew anyone that did, but it seems to be a lot more common and concerning as we enter into the winter here.”
Ostrander said the city has been discussing for weeks what changes they can make to how the public should be allowed in city buildings. Currently, they request members of the public to wear masks in City Hall. Ostrander said that some city employees feel more comfortable when members of the public wear masks inside the building, and that he’s in favor of “more strongly suggesting” that people wear masks. Not requiring masks would prevent city employees from having to enforce a mandate on members of the public, which Ostrander said he would be uncomfortable asking people to do.
Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said that people seem to have become more lax since March and April, himself included, and that they should remain conscientious of COVID-19 mitigation protocols such as social distancing.
“I think that, probably, the prudent thing to do is just stay diligent,” Gabriel said. “I think this will end, one day, I don’t think this is the new normal — I certainly hope not — and as much as we can kind of maintain our business as a city going forward and try to minimize the impacts, the better off we’re going to be coming out of it.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.