Petersburg’s screening and testing tent at the James A. Johnson Airport in late 2020 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The case count is climbing for a COVID-19 outbreak in Petersburg this week as local health officials ask the community to take steps to slow the spread.

Petersburg changed to high risk, red status on Monday following a spike in cases over the weekend. Many business, tribal and governmental services are either suspended or switching to phone service only. The school district switched to remote learning Tuesday.

The overall case count is going up daily. It was up to 30 cases as of Tuesday afternoon.

Petersburg’s incident commander Karl Hagerman said community spread appears to be happening in multiple settings and locations.

“It’s very concerning not only that it’s occurring at all but that we can’t really pin it down to a certain one source,” Hagerman said. “It just to me it elevates the concern level quite a bit and should impart to everybody that we just need to contract our circles right now and do the best we can to not be around others and try to knock this out.”

Those case numbers may increase as the week goes on. It’s been busy for the Petersburg Medical Center’s hotline for people asking about being tested. PMC chief of staff Dr. Jennifer Hyer said many who are diagnosed and calling to be tested are showing symptoms.

“We have hospitalized two people who thankfully I can say we were able to treat successfully with the therapies that we have, which include IV anti-virals, steroids, supplemental oxygen and other therapies,” Hyer said. “So that’s a definite success.”

PMC has seen some COVID positives for people who have received the first of two doses of the vaccine but none in people who have been fully vaccinated. The medical center planned to expand its free asymptomatic testing at the screening tent at Petersburg airport, starting Wednesday, February 24. So people without symptoms can be tested there, 7:30-10 a.m., possibly for a week or two.

Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink encouraged vaccination and testing.

“What we learn again and again through this pandemic is that prevention is key,” Zink said. “And so when we’re able to identify cases early, people do much better, communities do much better. If you don’t have COVID circulating, it’s a lot easier to get together because you can’t give COVID if you don’t have it. So we really are encouraging people to test regularly, so it’s great to hear about the asymptomatic testing. We have a lot of testing resources in the state and standby to support you in any way we possibly can.”

Meanwhile the borough assembly Tuesday approved updated versions on local health mandates in response to the expiration of the state’s disaster declaration. Those mandates cover traveler testing for people coming to Petersburg, cruise ships docking in the harbor, plans for companies bringing workers in from out of state and a directive to provide temporary shelter for someone without a home who needs to isolate or quarantine.

Community members continue to push back on those health measures, recommendations for vaccination and Petersburg’s unenforced mandate for masking.

At an assembly meeting Monday night local resident Donna Marsh asked the assembly to change directions.

“The coronavirus in all its variations, and it’s been around a long time, is here to stay,” Marsh said. “People will get it. People may die from it and most people survive very well after having acquired it. I would urge the council, the EOC and those who are making decisions for the residents of Petersburg to let life continue. People thrive in having the opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to do, where they will travel, where they will spend their money and the whole bit.”

That same night assembly member Chelsea Tremblay called for a better tone in the community discussion and said everyone was tired of the pandemic.

“But we don’t get to abdicate our responsibilities to this community because we are tired of the weight that they put on us,” Tremblay said. “So we are all very tired of this. I understand people are frustrated and people are getting information from a lot of different places that send them a lot of different directions but overall I just want to thank everybody who’s doing work to keep each other safe and following the steps that we all know by heart by now.”

 Among other closures for businesses and services this week, the Petersburg Indian Association has closed its offices for the rest of the week but staff are working from home, checking the answering machine and dropbox. The PIA does expect to have a drive through food box distribution later this week.

(For full disclosure, borough assembly member Chelsea Tremblay was a news intern in 2008 at KFSK in Petersburg where this story was produced)