PALMER — Mat-Su Borough Mayor Vern Halter called another press conference to address COVID-19 in the Mat-Su Valley on Wednesday amidst rising positive cases nationwide.
Mat-Su Borough Department of Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley updated numbers, stating that the Mat-Su has 88 confirmed positive cases with seven new cases on Wednesday. A total of 8,975 tests have been conducted on Mat-Su residents with 292 tests pending. The borough has set up 11 mobile test sites that have collected 118 tests. Mobile test sites will continue to be provided to more rural Mat-Su communities through August and for more information on mobile test sites, Mat-Su residents can call 352-6600.
Mat-Su Regional Medical Center COVID-19 Task force Chair Dr. Tom Quimby spoke at the press conference with reticence, saying he had hoped that such meetings would no longer be necessary. Quimby said that 40 of the 88 confirmed cases in the Mat-Su had recovered and that the time elapsed preparing for COVID-19 has allowed MSRMC to develop a steady supply of personal protective equipment.
“We have been able to make the hospital a much safer place. We have used this time to acquire protective equipment to protect both staff members as well as patients and we do believe that it is a safe place,” said Quimby. “I’m happy to report we have yet to have a health care worker that’s been confirmed positive at our hospital so we’re very proud of that and happy.”
Quimby noted the harrowing difference between Wednesday’s press conference and COVID-19 press conferences held in the past, that he had recently seen a patient experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and actually confronted the virus in person for the first time.
“It was a really bad feeling as a clinician to look this person in the eye and just say I don’t have anything I can really do that’s going to be effective here to change what’s going to happen with this and there’s the good chance that in another week or less, you could be back here and be on oxygen and be on a ventilator and that was a really awful feeling to look at this person and see how they were suffering and just be helpless as a clinician and I just want to remind everyone that’s still this disease that we’re dealing with,” said Quimby.
With seven confirmed cases in the Mat-Su on Wednesday, a new high number for single daily cases was set in the area. The first nonresident positive test in the Mat-Su was also returned this week. Quimby reiterated that COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in the United States currently and cited a Goldman Sachs estimate that the U.S. could save $1 trillion if everyone wore masks. Quimby further mentioned a study conducted in 198 countries that looked at rates of transmission. In countries where mask mandates were in effect, the coronavirus spread grew by eight percent per week where countries without mask mandates saw a 54 percent growth rate per week.
“I just want to implore us as citizens to do our part to make sure that we don’t lose this progress that we’ve made and as a clinician I don’t want to have to see the citizens of my community suffer unnecessarily if they can be prevented,” said Quimby.
Quimby issued three calls of action to Valley residents, asking them to isolate themselves if experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, to socially distance and to wear a mask. Quiimby then provided three reasons why Valley residents should follow his three requests, saying that Valley residents should isolate if symptomatic, socially distance and wear a mask to protect citizens, protect freedoms and understand that things do not exist in a vacuum.
“There’s a whole bunch of reasons why this has become controversial and politicized to some degree but again this is a disease that is affecting the entire globe and we have new information coming in at an unprecedented rate and right now the evidence that masking can prevent and slow the spread of this disease is becoming unequivocally and overwhelming,” said Quimby. “The evidence is becoming overwhelming that these masks are beneficial. There’s no convincing evidence that they are harmful for us and it’s really not that big of a deal to put it on and walk into a store coming from someone who’s now spending up to 12 hours at a time working a shift in a hospital with these things on so I just implore everyone to reconsider where you’re at personally and to consider wearing a mask.”
Mat-Su Borough staff notified the public of other dangers that exist besides the global pandemic, forest fires and water safety. Barkley said that a long term recovery group has arrived in Alaska to assist with rebuilding of houses that were damaged or lost in the McKinley fire last summer. Barkley said that the recovery team is in search of materials to build the houses, which can be dropped off in Talkeetna at 2623 Talkeetna Spur Road and more information can be found out by calling 203-1890. After the recent drowning of a Fairbanks man near Big Lake this week, Barkley also said that Deputy Emergency Services Director and Dive Team member Gary Klink has never once recovered a body from the water with a life jacket on in his 60 years of experience. With expected recreation occurring all around the Valley over the Independence Day weekend, Barkley warned of fire safety.
“Make sure you have copious amounts of water to extinguish those fires before you go to bed. Just a little bit of wind and an amber can start that fire back up,” said Barkley.
Borough Development Services Manager Alex Strawn provided a similar message as Barkley.
“I have a very short and simple message for residents of the borough and anybody who might be visiting the borough to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day this 4th of July. That message is please do not discharge fireworks within the borough. The discharge of fireworks within the borough is illegal. It has been illegal since 1969 when we originally adopted the law,” said Strawn. “Please be responsible. Do not discharge fireworks as wildfires are destructive they are costly and they are largely preventable.”
Strawn noted that after fireworks were made illegal on Borough land in 1969, the regulation was changed several years ago to allow for fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but not Independence Day. Mayor Vern Halter also called Valley residents to wear life jackets and exercise caution around fires.
“This is not the time to start using fireworks, to not watch your campfires and things of that nature and water safety my goodness, let’s wear life vests,” said Halter. “I highly recommend people should wear masks. I highly recommend what the Dr. said about social distancing, having groups, being in tight spaces. Inside of bars you’re asking to get yourself sick, you’re asking to spread coronavirus when you do things like that so a big parade where there’s gatherings, people are close together is probably the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”