Nome shuts down public places, discourages crowd gathering as steps to curb Covid-19 outbreak
After a nearly three-hour special emergency meeting of the Nome Common Council On Thursday, due to the COVID-19 threat and the prospect of a large influx of people to Nome for the Iditarod and the Lonnie O’Connor Basketball Tournament, the panel passed a motion to close the Rec Center, the Richard Foster Building (housing the library, museum and the Katirvik Culture Center), the swimming pool, Old St. Joe’s, after school activities in Nome Public Schools buildings and the Nome Visitor Center. The Mini Convention Center remains open, but limited in access as staffs deems appropriate. The measure is effective from Saturday, March 14 until March 31.
The closure of the Rec Center means the LOIBC tournament is postponed, the Iditarod Arts & Crafts show is canceled, and all large gatherings are strongly discouraged. John Handeland, speaking for the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that the ITC decided to postpone the Finisher’s Banquet and the Mushers Meet and Greet event. He read the ITC statement, “In consultation with the chief medical officer for the State of Alaska and recommendations put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization in response to COVID-19, the Iditarod has decided to postpone both the Meet the Mushers event on March 21 and its Awards Banquet on March 22 in Nome. This decision was made in the best interest of public health. All other elements of the race are continuing as planned; however, they will be limited to essential race personnel. The Iditarod will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed and encourages everyone to follow the guidelines and protocols put forth by public health officials.”
A rare sight, the Nome Common Council chamber was packed and overflowing, with people spilling into hallways.
With councilmembers Mark Johnson, Doug Johnson and Jerald Brown present, councilmembers Jennifer Reader, Meghan Topkok and Adam Martinson were on the telephone. Mayor Richard Beneville led through the meeting that was at times tense, and showed factions that favored shutting down Nome and not even allowing air traffic in and turning Iditarod dog teams around to those who wanted to keep Nome open for business and relying on people’s common sense, and everything in between.
During a lengthy public comment period the council heard from Nome Public Health official Deanna Stang who presented the State’s recommendations and urged the council to take action to discourage public gatherings and to promote social distancing. The state urges the following:
• Stay home if you are sick with a respiratory illness. If you develop a fever, stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever subsides.
• Stay at least 6 feet away from anyone who is coughing, sneezing, or feeling feverish.
• Avoid large gatherings and crowded places as much as possible.
• Avoid shaking hands and hugging as much as possible.
• If you live in a rural area, consider limiting non-essential travel to protect your community.
• People at high risk are persons aged 60 years and over, and persons with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or other immune compromising illnesses.
Dr. Terry O’Malia, ER doctor at Norton Sound Regional Hospital briefed the room on NSHC capabilities. He urged people who are experiencing respiratory symptoms not to rush to the hospital, but to call the Nurse Line first. The number is 907-443-6411. He said that the hospital will most likely recommend self care, and if the condition worsens or the fever progresses, the Nurse Line will offer advice how to handle it. But before anyone goes to the hospital, call first.
Of course, he said, if one has a true emergency that is non-respiratory illness related, the ER is accepting patients.
O’Malia said the hospital assists the community with supplies, hand sanitizers and so on. He also cautioned that a lot of misinformation is floating around and that the best way to get good information is from sources such as the hospital, the city and the state, not Facebook posts.
Dr. Mike Smith, also with NSHC, said the most urgent thing is to “knock those crowds down” and to tell people to stay away. Councilman Jerald Brown had read up on the statistics and rattled them down: 15 to 20 percent of elderly who get the virus die, 20 percent of those infected need serious medical assistance, 50 to 60 percent of the population are getting the virus. In light of those stats, he asked the health care professionals, “If 200 people in Nome need hospital care, what does it mean that NSHC is fully prepared?” Dr. O’Malia answered said that NSHC is as prepared as any medical facility in the country, but “our resources are limited.” Norton Sound has 20 beds, but no intensive care beds and no ventilators, both necessary to treat patients who are hit hard by the virus. Everybody requiring intensive care would have to be medivaced out of Nome, two patients at a time, per plane. What about testing capabilities? Stang answered that the state of Alaska has 1,000 test kits. The state runs 40 tests per day. Urgent cases will see results back in the same day. Patients with lesser symptoms can expect their results back in two to three days.
Concerned about a scenario where infected persons make it to Nome, spread the virus to those who come from the outlying communities, especially with the prospect of 12 teams competing per day in the Rec Center in the LOIBC and more than 400 people gathering around the basketball court, Dr. Smith said that Nome ought to do everything in its power to stop these crowds from coming here. He said that those players could take the virus home to their communities and spread it to its elder population. “You’re talking about wiping out a whole generation of elders,” he said.
The council wrestled with the weighty decision that saw the responsibility for the community’s health as paramount but also recognizing the economic and emotional aspect of canceling activities so cherished by the community, such as the basketball tourney and the Iditarod. Mayor Beneville reminded of the reason for the Iditarod: The 1925 diphtheria outbreak and the heroic relay of sled dog teams that brought the lifesaving serum to Nome. Also, he reminded the room of the devastation brought by the 1917 Spanish Flu.
Asked how the virus spreads, Dr. O’Malia said it’s by droplet infection, contact with bodily fluids or mucus. It is not known how long the virus can last on surfaces. Business owners and workers in the crowd spoke of how they instructed their employees to wipe down surfaces or merchandise twice every hour. Darcee Perkins, community member, urged all to follow what the state epidemiology is recommending and to stress how important it is to take all precautions. “Prevention, prevention, prevention,” she said.
In the end, the council passed the motion to shut down its city facilities. City Hall remains open.
Just as the meeting ended, news broke that the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Alaska.
This is a developing story. Stay tuned for periodic updates.