Beginning weeks ago, before any confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Alaska, the City of Bethel and its emergency responders began preparing for the scenario of the novel coronavirus reaching Bethel.
Bethel has officially declared a local emergency disaster, which enables the city to request relief funds from the state and federal government.
The city is also advising and requesting people to stop non-essential travel, quarantine themselves for 14 days if they must travel, and to stay home as much as possible. City Attorney Elizabeth "Libby" Bakalar says Bethel can't issue any of its own mandates because of its limited power as a second class city, but Acting City Manager Bill Howell says police could enforce the state's mandates.
All municipal buildings in Bethel are now closed to the public. City hall, the finance office, the fire department, the police station, and the public works building all locked their doors on March 19. Acting City Manager Bill Howell says that this action was taken in order to keep city services operating, at least telephonically.
“The city has a fairly limited staff as it is,” Howell said. “Although our action would exceed what the CDC would recommend, we felt that it was important to protect our staff so we could keep critical services moving out to the public.” The phone numbers for all city departments are available on the city's website.
Howell says that for now, Bethel City Council meetings will continue to be held in person. That could change by Tuesday, March 23, and he says that the city is working on a way for the public to call in to the meeting.
Bethel Acting Police Chief Amy Davis says that part of that preparation is 911 dispatchers being trained on how to identify cases of the virus. Emergency responders have also been stocking up on protective gear, but Acting Fire Chief Daron Solesbee says that doing so has been an issue.
“The supply chain’s basically dried up,” Solesbee said.
Solesbee said that the shortage of protective gear is an issue nationwide. He said that Bethel’s emergency responders have enough masks for a short-term response to the coronavirus, but not if it’s long-term or wide-scale. Solesbee said that the city could get more masks from the state, and that the state could offer an even more valuable resource: extra emergency responders.
“They would be willing to provide personnel should our department responders become incapacitated due to this virus,” Solesbee said.
To prevent that scenario, EMS, police, and fire department workers have been training to respond to someone possibly carrying COVID-19. Acting City Manager Bill Howell explained how that involved “retraining folks on how to properly apply respiratory protection, also conducting respiratory fit tests to make sure that everybody has a good seal on their face mask so that it fits properly, talking about medical equipment that’s needed for the proper treatment, diagnosis of patients with that condition."
The city has also adopted a new policy, informed by best practices from the CDC, for emergency medical personnel responding to patients who might be carrying the virus. Howell described the policy as “a memo within our medical personnel describing what our protocols or procedures are in dealing with patients, and a decision tree on how to diagnosis it and the questions to ask."
Hauled Water And Sewer Services
If people have to stay home, that could increase their frequency of their need for water deliveries. Howell says that he understands the importance of washing hands and staying clean during this time.
“We are exploring some ideas: reduced rate, or a period where we wouldn’t shut accounts off due to this pandemic,” Howell said Thursday, March 19.
Hauled water drivers were already short-staffed before an epidemic. If people start ordering more water deliveries, or if drivers get sick, Howell is willing to consider every idea, including bringing in emergency drivers with Commercial Driver's Licenses.
“In an extreme scenario, we would be calling the state of Alaska for additional help or additional CDL drivers,” Howell said. “We could really encourage the public to conserve water. And as an absolutely last resort, we could reduce the number of deliveries. But none of these things have been settled on or decided yet.”
City Of Bethel Staff
As of Thursday, March 21, Acting City Manager Bill Howell said the city's employees were still coming to work, although he says that could change.
The city is requiring all city directors to watch CDC webinars on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, and is making this information available for all city employees. The city is coordinating with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and the state's public health department on their roles and responsibilities amid a virus outbreak.
That coordination will eventually need to be handed off to a new city manager. Bethel’s new city manager, Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza, arrives in Bethel April 6. If Bethel is in the midst of a coronavirus crisis when he starts, Howell says that Corazza won’t have to manage the city alone.
“I will stay and serve the city as much and as long as they need me, especially in the midst of an emergency,” Howell said.