Local medical staff called on the community this week to wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. Petersburg emergency officials issued a recommendation for masks and other health measures but are not pursuing a mandate.

The requests came during Monday’s borough assembly meeting, from multiple medical staffers at the Petersburg Medical Center.

“COVID-19 is not a political issue. It’s a public health crisis,” said Dr. Selina Burt. “And wearing a mask in public is not a sign of weakness or fear. It actually shows that the wearer understands that he is a part of the community and that he values other people within the community. So I want to ask everyone in Petersburg to please show your respect and honor your fellow community members by wearing a mask when you go out in public.”

The community hospital’s chief of staff Dr. Jennifer Hyer thought the community may be failing its most vulnerable.

“I’ve talked to my elderly and chronically ill patients who are severely anxious and afraid of contracting COVID,” Hyer said. “They know they would not survive the illness. They pose the question to me. Why can’t everyone just wear a mask in public? Why doesn’t my community want to protect me?”

Similar pleas came from other medical center staff. Chief nursing officer Jennifer Bryner went further and asked the assembly to re-instate a mask mandate.

“We know that masking helps decrease the spread of COVID-19,” Bryner said. “We know that it can be wildly unpopular and making the unpopular choice is hard. I’m asking you who have the power to make a difference for the physical and financial health of Petersburg to make the hard decision of asking people to wear a mask when they enter a public building in order to keep our community healthy and our schools and businesses open.”

Public testimony was not all in favor of that step. Parent and coach Craig Anderson taken issue with the reporting of a recent positive case that local officials connected to travel to Juneau, despite the youth shooting team taking COVID precautions on that trip.

“That’s problematic for me when we start talking about automatic mask mandates given the facts of this particular situation were not correct,” Anderson said. “But here we are talking about mandatory masking. I’m not in support of that without testing. The school board is now going to be meeting and I assume the borough as well about a mandatory mask mandate or some sort of directive, based off of this last event that was not portrayed correctly. I, as a parent, would like to see increased testing of kids in school so they can get back to a normal life and normal activities.”

Statewide the number of positive cases increased last week for the fifth week in a row. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported over 10,000 active cases in Alaska this week. State health officials say most new infections they’re seeing are from community spread, not from travel. In Petersburg four cases were still active at the beginning of the week. That was down to three active by the end of the week, with one new case announced Thursday.

Medical center CEO Phil Hofstetter read a letter to the assembly urging more health precautions.

“Petersburg has experienced a spike with cases but due to the rapid response the risk appears to be mitigated and I applaud the PMC team, community, school, public health and borough incident command team response,” Hofstetter said. “As activities and people are pushed indoors from winter, we anticipate an increased number of cases.”

That letter also asked the community to use face coverings in indoor public spaces, avoid large gatherings and use social distancing and hand hygiene.

The borough’s incident commander Karl Hagerman told the assembly he was drafting a health alert that recommended those measures, but would stop short of mandating any.

“Everybody is definitely getting weary of the pandemic and it’s wearing a lot of people down,” Hagerman said. “But as we can see with the new case counts that are skyrocketing in our state, it’s not the time to let down. We have to resist the fatigue that we’re seeing. We really need to try our best to mitigate any potential spread in our community.”

The borough’s emergency operations center issued that health alert Thursday. It asks Petersburg residents to use face coverings inside public buildings or while working with others. It also calls for social distancing, hand and cough hygiene and avoiding large gatherings especially indoors. This latest health alert also recommends getting a flu shot.

Petersburg briefly had a mask mandate in April that relied on voluntary compliance. Since then local elected officials haven’t been interested in reinstating it because it’s seen as too divisive in the community. The Dunleavy administration has declined to issue such a mandate at the state level but has put that decision on local governments.