(Photo courtesy of the CDC)

When it comes to the spread of coronavirus, Wrangell is taking its lead from national and state health officials. The island town has already canceled one sporting event, and many private entities are doing the same.

As of Thursday night, Alaska confirmed its first case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. No one in Wrangell has been tested yet, according to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which runs the town’s hospital and clinic.

 Staff at the hospital and the clinic are screening everyone that walks through their doors — visitors and patients alike.

“So what that means in Wrangell Medical Center particularly is keeping our long-term care patients safe in that environment and keeping other people who are admitted to the hospital safe,” says Dr. Elliot Bruhl, the chief medical officer for SEARHC. He says staff are checking for two criteria. That’s symptoms, including fever and coughing. And the patient’s travel history.

And that part keeps changing daily.

“And so we would consider a positive travel history to be people who’ve traveled in the state of Washington, the state of California, the state of New York,” Bruhl says.

Seattle is a key destination for Wrangellites. With one southbound flight a day, it’s the quickest way to get down south.

Testing is available at the local hospital and clinic, though those need to be shipped to state facilities for results. But so far, no one is waiting to get tested.

With that information, city officials are focusing on prevention.

“Don’t shake hands for the time being. Do a fist bump or an elbow bump or just say hi and smile really big, exercise those, those facial muscles instead. So people know you, you care,” says Lisa Von Bargen. She says city staff are cleaning surfaces more often. She plans to reach out to business on how they can implement prevention measures as well.

And the city’s Parks and Recreation has canceled a youth wrestling tournament, which would have brought parents and kids from Petersburg to town for the weekend.

The city says it could only make recommendations regarding events outside of the city’s purview. But this weekend, private groups have already taken it upon themselves to cancel gatherings. A community run on Saturday is canceled. The Senior Center will suspend in-house lunch (but will continue to provide rides and home meals). Little League activities are canceled.

Broad measures like closing ports and other travel restrictions would have to come from state and federal agencies. Von Bargen says she will be looking to the state’s direction for much of this pandemic.  

“Although local municipalities don’t have the ability to mandate quarantine or mandate specific testing, if we have a suspected case or a concern, we all have been given a number to call immediately,” she says.

If the city needed to declare a local emergency, that would change things. The city is working with its attorney to figure out exactly what those powers look like.

Von Bargen worries about the potential economic impacts to the town based on reduced visitor travel. The federal government is currently warning people not to take cruises. And two cruise companies canceled early season trips to Alaska this week.

Only about 2 percent of total Alaska cruise ship passengers will come to Wrangell, that’s still an influx of millions of dollars for the small town. And Von Bargen says that will be discussed during budgeting sessions for the upcoming fiscal year. 

The city is taking things day by day, but if and when the first confirmed case of Covid-19 is detected in town, Von Bargen says expect things will look very different.