Should the City of Soldotna reintroduce COVID-19 mitigation policies to city facilities in response to surging cases and stagnating vaccination rates on the central peninsula? That was the question raised during Wednesday’s meeting of the Soldotna City Council.
The city announced at the end of May that it would relax those protocols at city facilities, which include Soldotna City Hall, the Soldotna Public Library, the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and the Soldotna Police Department.
In considering a return to mitigation strategies, Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen cited during Wednesday’s meeting new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surging COVID-19 cases numbers on the peninsula and statewide, and stagnating vaccination rates.
“Back in May, our case rates were declining … vaccinations were still happening and a lot of people were getting vaccinated and at that point, the CDC issued some guidance really relaxing some of their recommendations about mask wearing and such,” Queen said Wednesday. “More recently, really for the past several weeks, we’ve seen case rates start to increase and those trends have been reversed. We’ve also seen new vaccinations kind of taper off.”
An independent study conducted by the city of the “Soldotna area,” which is bigger than the city and includes about 16,000 people, found that about 32.2% of individuals were fully vaccinated, Queen said. That is lower than Seward and Homer, Queen said. The Kenai Peninsula Borough as a whole ranks 11 out of 12 Alaskan regions for percentage of population 12 and older who are fully vaccinated, at about 44.3%.
“There’s just a lot of the virus in the community right now,” Queen said.
Under new CDC guidance, people who are fully vaccinated can reduce their risk of being infected with the delta variant and possibly spreading it to others by wearing a mask indoors in public while in an area with substantial or high transmission. According to the CDC, areas of “high transmission” are those where, over the last seven days, more than 100 cases have been reported per 100,000 people.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough reported 158 resident and nonresident cases over the past week, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. With a population of 56,218, that case rate makes the borough an area where the CDC now recommends wearing masks indoors.
The CDC now also recommends getting tested for COVID-19 three to five days after being exposed to someone who has the virus, even if fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people exposed to someone with COVID-19 should also wear a mask indoors in public for two weeks following exposure or until receipt of a negative test result.
Council Member Justin Ruffridge, who also owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and has helped lead COVID-19 vaccination efforts across the central peninsula, said that he had time to read the new guidance before the meeting and would support bringing back a masking requirement in Soldotna facilities.
“Frankly, I’m somewhat surprised that we’re here but not surprised at the same time,” Ruffridge said. “ … It’s a little discouraging that we’re here, but I understand why we are and so we have to work through it together. I think it’s a good guidance.”
Ruffridge also said, however, that choosing to be vaccinated is a personal choice.
“I think your decision to be vaccinated is a health care decision, and it does require some privacy, and you should have the choice to decide, and you should decide that with your health care provider,” Ruffridge said. “I think our language about making this fight a problem of the unvaccinated potentially creates an us versus them mentality.”
Queen said that she has no plans to require that city employees get vaccinated and has avoided implementing “parallel” policies for staff who are and are not vaccinated, but that the city has worked to communicate vaccine incentive opportunities among city employees.
The council’s full meeting can be viewed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.