Juneau officials move toward more predictable COVID-19 response

Two people carry luggage towards the sliding glass doors under an awning at the Juneau Airport
Masked travelers head into the terminal of Juneau International Airport on May 15, 2020. Travel restrictions are one category of COVID-19 policy strategies that may begin to shift more fluidly with the community’s risk levels. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

For Juneau’s ongoing COVID-19 response, local officials are moving toward using a prescribed set of policies that shift on the fly, according to the community’s risk status.

Basically, the idea is when conditions worsen, restrictions would automatically tighten. When conditions improve, restrictions would automatically relax.

Up to this point in the pandemic, health restrictions have gone through the Juneau Assembly’s regular policymaking process. Early on, that meant a series of marathon meetings to adopt emergency measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

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Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove explained how the new system would work to the Juneau Assembly on Monday.

“We could simply say, ‘We are at a high level of risk, and this is why we’ve arrived there, and here’s what it means to you, community members, or you, travelers coming into our community,’” she said.

“What it means” in terms of travel restrictions, restaurant and bar capacities, gathering sizes and other restrictions.

Emergency officials are tracking about 20 specific risk indicators: things like new case numbers, Bartlett Regional Hospital’s personal protective equipment supply, testing turnaround times and the status of Anchorage and Seattle.

They boil those indicators down into an overall community risk status on a scale with four tiers. Shifting tiers would trigger a shift in community restrictions.

The Juneau Assembly reviewed a draft of the framework on Monday. Local emergency officials developed it with guidance from state public health officials. It’s similar to a state framework.

With a more predictable and transparent strategy for tamping down COVID-19, city officials hope this approach could improve compliance issues with public health mandates and guidance.

For example, Cosgrove said city staff were sent out to bars and restaurants last week, sort of like secret shoppers, to see if the rules are being followed. She said restaurants appeared to be largely compliant. But bars were not.

“Some of them are great and some of them are, um, maybe not complying,” she said. “And perhaps if they understand that the alternative, of case jumps, that bars will actually be closed, that might be some additional motivation to make sure the rules are being followed.”

Juneau Assembly member Michelle Hale has already internalized the system’s color-coding. Local emergency officials say Juneau is currently in an orange, moderate risk status. The lowest risk tier is yellow.

“It’s all of our responsibility, all of our collective responsibility to take those actions to move ourselves back into yellow,” Hale said. “We do not have to follow the trajectory of the rest of the country. We don’t have to keep increasing our cases.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, local authorities were aware of 25 active COVID-19 cases in Juneau, which is trending up. That figure includes eight nonresidents.

Chart showing cumulative COVID-19 cases in Juneau
Graph from CBJ COVID-19 dashboard showing cumulative COVID-19 cases in Juneau by day of onset of symptoms. (Data from Alaska Department of Health & Social Services)
Jeremy Hsieh

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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