Anchorage defends release of businesses visited by people with COVID-19

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

The Anchorage Health Department late Monday night released additional information defending the city’s decision to name 19 bars, restaurants and strip clubs that had confirmed visits from people who were infectious with COVID-19.

The decision was a remarkable development in Alaska’s handling of the pandemic because public health officials had long refused to publicly identify locations where people may have come in contact with COVID-19, instead relying on contact tracing to identify and inform anyone who may have come into close contact with the virus.

But with the surge in cases following the statewide reopening that lifted capacity limits on bars and restaurants, the city’s contact tracing team has been stretched past its limit. Not only are more people getting sick, but each sick person has far more contacts than in the early days of the virus.

“A number of the people with COVID-19 who visited the facilities were unable to or declined to provide information on the people with whom they had close contact. Many businesses did not have contact information for everyone who was in the facility at the time that would allow AHD contact tracers to notify all staff and patrons of their possible exposure in a timely fashion,” explained the city’s update. “With a large population of people potentially at risk, AHD issued a public advisory to alert people of their potential exposure and to provide information on what they should do during the 14 days after possible exposure. This information was critical for Anchorage residents to make informed decisions about their health.”

The release followed several statements from state public health officials that identified bars as hotspots without naming any specific locations. The city says the release of the businesses isn’t intended to point blame, noting that some businesses even exceeded the recommended safety measures.

“The fact that a business appeared on the list does not mean it did anything wrong,” explained the city. “AHD only listed businesses where they could not confidently contact all persons who likely came into close contact with an infectious person. That can happen even when a business does everything right. This is also an important reminder that businesses cannot solve COVID-19 alone. We all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our community.”

The decision to release the names drew backlash from some, including conservatives who’ve long chafed at Democratic Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s handling of the virus (Berkowitz did not directly release the names).

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes called on Facebook for businesses to “take whatever legal recourse necessary to put this mayor in his place.” Several commenters, however, applauded the city’s release of the information: “Sounds like you have a Mayor who wants to keep you safe and healthy,” one person wrote.

The update says the city is in the process of expanding its team of public health investigators and contact tracers. It also says it will continue to update its list of businesses, removing ones where no further cases were identified for 10 days. That’s pared the list down to just three businesses:

Business Name Location Exposure Period
Anchorage Moose Lodge #1534 Anchorage 6/27-6/28
The Gaslight Bar Anchorage 6/27
Spurs Bar and Grill Palmer 6/27

Why it matters

The city of Anchorage’s contact tracing team isn’t the only one pushed to its limit.

On Friday, the state of Alaska released an update that also said its system is “strained” and is planning to hire additional contact tracers to handle the surge. In the statement, they said they were no longer able to continue daily check-ins with people who may have come into contact with COVID-19 but are giving the a single call to inform them of their exposure and need to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The state also explained why contact tracing in the reopening has become much more difficult.

“Early on, people who tested positive usually had a short list of close contacts,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, State Epidemiologist. “Now, as people are mixing more with others, it’s not uncommon for someone who tests positive to have had dozens of close contacts, sometimes too many to name and call. That’s making it really difficult for our contact tracers to keep pace.”

The situation highlights the challenges of manual contact tracing amid the reopening. There have been calls for digital contact tracing efforts, such as the ones South Korea used to keep a lid on the virus (though the country is now seeing a second wave cases with 60-plus daily cases), but they’ve not been widely adopted in the U.S. amid privacy concerns.

Without the ability to contact everyone who may have been infected with COVID-19 without knowing it, the city and state have to rely on other measures to limit the spread of the virus.

The city of Anchorage last week instituted a mask mandate, requiring those who can wear masks to wear masks in businesses and other areas where social distancing isn’t feasible. The state has refused to implement any additional mandates but has continued to urge people to limit their contacts, keep a record of close contacts and wear a face mask while in public spaces.

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