(Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Petersburg borough is reporting a large COVID-19 outbreak among residents and staff at its assisted living facility.

As of Monday evening, February 14 the borough’s Mountain View Manor assisted living wing had learned of at least 10 positive cases and one fatality that had COVID as a contributing factor.

The first case popped up Thursday, February 10. A resident of the building reported cold-like symptoms, body aches and an upset stomach and tested positive. In an email, manor administrator Shelyn Bell said that the person had not traveled recently but had been circulating in the community. Bell and her staff are working with the Petersburg Medical Center and have notified all residents and their guardians.

Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht said most of the cases have been in people who have been vaccinated.

“It appears vaccinations really do help limit the severity,” Giesbrecht said Tuesday. “These were many people that are older and sometimes have health issues and we’re seeing with just the one exception, very light symptoms. Doesn’t make it any less serious but we definitely are happy that so many of the residents chose to be vaccinated.”

This is the largest outbreak of the pandemic for the borough’s assisted living facility. There are no cases reported in the elderly housing part of the building with this outbreak but there have been positives reported in that wing over the past two years.

Giesbrecht said the borough is taking steps to limit the spread of the virus.

“We’ve basically quarantined everybody to their rooms and cancelled all the congregate, you know the meals and things like that, ‘til we get a better handle on it,” he explained. “Thanks with help with the hospital and home antigen tests we’ve gone through and tested all the residents and in the process of testing all the employees. And you know there’s back and forth as far as in some cases people as residents can say that they don’t want to be tested but I think we’ve had pretty good luck getting the majority of everybody tested.”

Staff are wearing full personal protective equipment around COVID positive residents. As of Tuesday, visitors are not allowed at the assisted living facility. Bell writes they would make an exception for an end-of-life situation. In keeping with state regulations, residents are allowed to leave the building. A couple of manor staff members are among those testing positive. Bell said that the manor has been short on staff for over a year but has enough employees to meet state requirements. Healthy workers are stepping up to do double shifts and fill in when needed.

The assisted living facility has 20 apartments. There are also 24 apartments in the elderly housing wing of that building.

Petersburg has been a couple months behind the curve for case peaks observed elsewhere in the U.S. and and even behind other parts of Alaska. Medical professional assume these cases are the omicron variant – it’s been the dominant strain in the state since early last month.

Petersburg Medical Center has been helping with testing and treating some of the people who’ve tested positive at assisted living with monoclonal antibodies. CEO Phil Hofstetter said these cases at the manor may signal an increase locally.

“It’s sort of a waiting game,” Hofstetter said. “We don’t really know. We can’t predict obviously. We weren’t sure if we were just seeing just enough positives to kind of skirt the high peaks that most communities have been seeing but with this outbreak I’m pretty concerned that we’re going to see a surge. So I encourage community members to follow mitigation protocols, masking and distancing, obviously up to date vaccines, including the booster, all those things that we’ve been talking about.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported the omicron variant spreads more easily than other types but is generally less deadly.

As far as numbers at the moment, Petersburg’s COVID dashboard maintained by the medical center showed 13 active cases in the community as of Monday evening. 15 were recorded in the past seven days. Those numbers do not include people who test positive on a take-home kit and don’t report to a health care provider or employer.

The school district’s dashboard Monday showed five active cases for students and staff, with four in the elementary school and one in the high school.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services categorizes Petersburg and every other part of the state on high alert because of the number of COVID cases.

The borough had an agreement with the medical center last year for a voluntary testing program at assisted living.  That’s no longer in place but the medical center is helping with testing and providing take home antigen kits for employees and residents. The borough assembly voted down a mandatory testing program at the facility in late 2020 after staff spoke out against the requirement. Bell writes that employees are strongly encouraged to get tested. If they refuse they are required to wear an N95 mask at all times.