Study: Juneau’s COVID-19 response a role model for success

Passengers arriving to airport were temperature checked
January 12, 2023 at 4:50 a.m.

By Mark Sabbatini, Juneau Empire

JUNEAU, Ala. — Juneau’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic “stands out as a particularly successful example” due to quick actions and frequent communications by local leaders, according to a report published this week by the University of Alaska Southeast.

The findings, which are likely to be questioned by local residents expressing opposition to various pandemic-related restrictions, are a model for local and state governments developing agendas for dealing with such crises, according to the study’s authors.

“As a result of its early response measures Juneau has, to date, the highest vaccination rates, among the lowest coronavirus cases per 100,000 population, and among the fewest deaths among other home rule boroughs in Alaska,” the report states.

Currently 79% of Juneau’s residents are fully vaccinated (46% with boosters), including 95% of residents 65 or older (86% with a booster), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 11,686 cases and 27 deaths have been reported locally, or a death rate of about 0.23%. The nationwide death rate for the virus is about 1.1%.

The report is a look at the early months of the pandemic response by governing entities, and doesn’t factor in longer-term economic and societal impacts in Juneau compared to elsewhere, said Jim Powell, an assistant research professor with UAS’ Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center and coordinating author of the study.

“That wasn’t the point of the study,” he said. “It’s not glossy to talk about governing, (but) that’s what we wanted to do — how did the city of Juneau respond?”

The report attributes local success to three key factors, municipal government control over key assets such as the hospital and airport, coordination with other local stakeholders with tribal entities singled out in particular, and an aggressive effort to frequently and accurately communicate with the public.

Six researchers interviewed 61 people in government, tribal, business and health care occupations between June and August of 2020 for the study. Juneau’s infection rate and response was also compared to data from other Alaska and isolated communities, as well as to larger national trends.

Decisions by Juneau’s municipal leaders to quickly enact virus control measures was greatly aided by the ability to effortlessly coordinate with the hospital, airport and other involved agencies because the city owned them, according to the report.

“Among the first decisions the (city) manager made was to direct the local fire department to set up stations at the airport to provide voluntary temperature checks for arriving passengers — a response made possible by Juneau’s ownership of both its fire department and airport,” the report states.

The city was also able to recruit school nurses, fire department medical personnel and other essential help for the hospital when needed, according to the report.

Similarly, “coordination of local testing, collaboration with the Native Alaskan[sic] SEARHC providers, and deployment of emergency COVID-19 treatment (was) much easier than if, as was the case in most U.S. cities, the CBJ had had to negotiate with a private for-profit community hospital.”

City coordination with SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Sealaska Corp. and other Alaska Native entities proved beneficial because of their heritage and history of coping with what for many officials was an unprecedented situation.

“Given their experience with the 1918 (Spanish flu) pandemic and powerful memories of that event as passed down through the tribes’ strong oral tradition, Juneau’s Indigenous groups quickly acted on their own, for the most part separate from the CBJ government,” the report noted.

That included setting up an Emergency Operations Center that coordinated efforts between tribal entities throughout Southeast Alaska.

“I think now Tlingit and Haida, and probably many other places around the world, are looking at the Emergency Operations Center as a tool to use in the event of any type of emergency,” an Alaska Native person involved with the center told a study interviewer.

However, the city within months was coordinating many of its efforts through those Alaska Native entities which, in turn, were making services such as SEARHC’s free COVID-19 testing available to non-tribal residents.

“Yes, just like the way it used to be a long time ago,” a Tlingit social worker told a study author. “We’re all helping one another. People are delivering groceries to those who cannot shop, sharing food they have grown or harvested, checking on the welfare of Elders and families, and delving into their deep-rooted ancestral knowledge to survive.”

Communication with the public is also cited as crucial in an effective response by the study authors, who note the city went from one half-time public information position to eight full-time employees almost immediately after the pandemic was declared.

“Every day they were talking to the community,” Powell said. “They didn’t have to [do] that. They could have hunkered down. They thought there was a need.”

The study contains what critics of the local response may perceive as partisanship. It notes, for example, Republican areas were generally less informative and thus had higher infection rates. It also offers specific criticisms such as “Alaska’s Republican governor was relatively slow to issue orders” in mixed assessments of responses by the state and federally under former President Donald Trump.

Numerous nationwide studies have found both mixed feeling from residents about the effectiveness of the response by public health officials, and data that people relying on Trump and other like-minded officials for information were among the least likely to be vaccinated.

Powell, a former deputy mayor of Juneau who’s married to former Democratic state legislator Beth Kerttula, said the UAS study is comprised of data and subject interviews.

“That’s what the numbers were,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”

There was, for instance, both commendable and problematic actions by state officials, as well as an inconsistent response from the federal government which provided substantial aid while mixing its preventative messages, Powell said.

“We had a local government that was consistent and worked together well,” he said.

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