For the past year, Alaska officials have ceaselessly reminded residents of the importance of mitigation measures during the COVID-19 pandemic: Wear your mask, social distance and quarantine after traveling.
What happens when those guidelines aren’t followed? Ask residents of Cordova, the Prince William Sound fishing town of 2,000, where an unfolding outbreak feels like it could have been scripted by Dr. Anne Zink or Anthony Fauci as a cautionary tale.
It begins with the police chief returning from an out-of-state trip and, instead of quarantining, coaching a wrestling practice. It ends with some 10% of Cordova residents in quarantine, school closures and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter aborting a supply mission because some of its crew members were exposed.
Some two-dozen COVID-19 cases are confirmed so far. And the police chief, Nate Taylor, is now on a week-long paid administrative leave.
“It wasn’t like a huge shock that we had cases. I think what was the shocker for all of us, including myself, was the extent of it — how many people were impacted,” said City Manager Helen Howarth. “This thing is a wake-up call in our community.”
While roughly a third of Cordova residents have received at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19, officials say that the recent outbreak is a painful reminder to Alaskans of the lingering threat that the virus still poses — and how quickly a single person’s actions during a pandemic can affect an entire community.
But they also note that Cordova’s experience comes with some encouraging lessons, too, particularly when it comes to its schools.
There were eight students from the wrestling event that went into seven classrooms while they were potentially contagious, said Dr. Hannah Sanders, chief executive of Cordova’s hospital.
But after roughly 110 students were tested Monday, there was no evidence of school-based spread, she added — suggesting that the district’s regimen of social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing is functioning as designed.
“I’m not sure that we’re doing anything that’s magical,” said Alex Russin, the superintendent. “But we certainly are following CDC guidelines.”
Cordova is one of a number of Alaska communities that fared well during the early stages of the pandemic, only to see cases spike recently. While the Mat-Su saw low rates of COVID-19 for months, it’s now contending with increasing case counts, and Petersburg, another fishing town in Southeast Alaska, has seen a major outbreak in the past week.
“We still need to take COVID seriously and to mitigate. And I think it can be hard messaging, because we’re super excited about vaccines and it is our path out,” Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, told reporters Monday. “It’s just, not everyone’s through that door yet.”
Taylor, the police chief, returned from his week-long, out-of-state trip in mid-February, and the next day, he coached the Cordova Pounders wrestling club at the local Moose Lodge, the Cordova Times reported.
The circumstances of the event are not totally clear, but it appears that club members were not wearing masks, said Sanders, the doctor and hospital executive. Officials subsequently said a “private club activity” had led to the cases seen in Cordova schools.
Taylor didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in a public letter of apology to the Cordova Times, he said he made a “serious mistake” that “placed many of my friends unnecessarily at risk.”
“It is a mistake I regret every day,” he said. “I would like to urge everyone to learn from my mistake and follow the guidelines that are in place. They are our best defense against further outbreaks.”
Taylor’s actions have prompted intense social media debate, along with humorous memes shared by a local Instagram account. Some residents are calling for Taylor to resign or be fired, while others are urging forgiveness.
“He’s a huge asset and he’s done a lot of great things,” said Susie Herschleb, the city’s parks and recreation director, who’s been critical of Taylor on social media. But, she added: “It’s very complicated, because this was a very bad decision.”
Taylor did not break any state mandates by not quarantining because Alaska’s travel requirements expired last month — just days before he returned from his trip. He did, however, violate rules for city employees that require a week of social distancing after travel, said Howarth, the city manager.
“It is yet to be determined what the consequences are going to be. But we’re not cutting off anybody’s heads,” she said. “Quite frankly, the social media has done a plenty good job of flogging — I think I would much rather be disciplined by my supervisor than the court of public opinion.”
None of the more than 20 people infected in the outbreak have been hospitalized, Howarth added. But the impacts have still been substantial.
Officials identified almost 200 close contacts who have had to quarantine, she said, and a daycare has closed.
The Cordova Times reported that more than a half-dozen businesses and nonprofits also temporarily closed to the public or limited visits, including a popular crafting store called the Net Loft.
And the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir, which is based in Cordova and left on a trip to Southeast Alaska last week, had to turn around when three crew members were identified as close contacts, said spokesman Kip Wadlow.
Two of those close contacts, plus another crew member, ultimately tested positive for COVID-19, Wadlow said. Some 40 additional crew are set to be tested Tuesday.
Cordova’s two schools have closed, too. But officials say they’ll likely reopen next week, and credit the district’s mitigation efforts with thwarting the virus’ spread in classrooms.
To keep the number of students small and allow for adequate spacing, the district split its classes into two groups this year — one that meets in the morning and another that meets in the afternoon, said Russin, the superintendent. Larger kindergarten and first grade classes were divided into even smaller groups, with no more than 10 students per classroom, he added.
While officials said it was astonishing to see how quickly the virus wreaked havoc on Cordova, they also say they’ve been encouraged by how swiftly the town’s response appears to have contained it. Russin described the past week as a “roller coaster of emotions.”
“That initial notification that even one student tests positive is kind of a gut check. And then you hear of a second one and a third one, and all of you’re thinking: Are the wheels coming off?” he said. “But you have to take a step back and say we’re committed to the processes and the procedures and the protocols that we have in place — and we’re going to trust them.”