Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel speaks to reporters after the Senate approved funding for the state to respond to the new coronavirus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. Also pictured, from left, are Sens. Bert Stedman, David Wilson and Natasha von Imhof. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel speaks to reporters after the Senate approved funding for the state to respond to the new coronavirus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. Also pictured, from left, are Sens. Bert Stedman, David Wilson and Natasha von Imhof. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Dunleavy declares public health disaster

No cases in Alaska have been identified, but the declaration will help free up resources.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a public health disaster emergency, Wednesday morning, saying that “it is highly probable that an outbreak of COVID-19 will occur in the state in the near future.”

The governor, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, announced the declaration at a Wednesday press briefing on COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

The declaration is in response to Wednesday morning’s announcement from the World Health Organization, which upgraded the COVID-19 virus from an epidemic to a global pandemic.

“We don’t have any positive cases at this moment, but we are anticipating that’s going to change,” Dunleavy said.

Zink and Dunleavy said the state is concerned there are cases already in Alaska or on the way.

“It’s going to be in Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “It’s probably here now.”

The declaration is a tool to free up resources, Dunleavy said. Crum said the federal government is sending $4.9 million to address any potential outbreak.

At the state level, both the Alaska Senate and House of Representatives approved HB 206, which appropriates $4.1 million in state funds and releases $9 million in federal funding to combat the virus. The funds, requested by Dunleavy, will be used to fill 10 positions in the Department of Health and Social Services. The positions will include five new public health nurses, three nurse epidemiologists, one microbiologist in Fairbanks to assist with lab testing and one emergency manager to assist in the Emergency Operations Center. The positions will be based statewide and will assist rural communities in the screening for COVID-19.

As of 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, 60 Alaskans have been tested, with 14 of those tests still pending and no confirmed cases of COVID-19. Nationally, as of Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., there are 938 confirmed cases of COVID-19, resulting in 29 deaths, in 38 states and Washington, D.C., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The state has not issued any mandates, but said a point could come where they mandate school closures and school delays or that large gatherings do not occur.

Local schools have been cleaned, Pegge Erkeneff, director of communications for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said. She said the district regularly cleans its buildings, but that buildings across the district were also cleaned over the break. Students and staff in the district return to school next week. Erkeneff said information about the district’s plans if there is a local confirmed case will be released for parents, students, staff and community members by the end of the week.

When asked if the state is working on any measures to assist low-income individuals who are asked to quarantine themselves and leave work without pay for two weeks, Dunleavy said the Legislature is working to address the health aspect of the virus first, and then the economic impacts second.

“We all realize that the economy and certain sectors may be impacted,” Dunleavy said. “We have talked with the Legislature first and foremost about resources dedicated toward the health aspect of this, but I have no doubt that we’ll also be talking about the economic aspect of this as well.”

This week, the state is also seeking “information from interested parties for providing housing units that are quarantined to allow for monitoring for COVID-19,” a state request said.

The state is looking for companies who could offer housing units like, “motel rooms, apartments, trailers or other suitable dwellings.”

Interested parties must submit a written response to the state by March 20.

King County in Washington state — where an outbreak has grown over the last several weeks — is in the process of purchasing a motel to house COVID-19 patients.

Dunleavy asked Alaskans to change their behaviors, wash hands as often as possible, keeping a distance from others and not shaking hands.

“What we’re asking for is that Alaskans be a little more diligent in their habits,” Dunleavy said.

Those Alaskans who are over 60, who have underlying heart and lung conditions, who are immunocompromised or feeling under the weather, are asked to “social distance” themselves. Social distancing means avoiding large crowds and big gatherings. Social distancing does not mean social isolation, Zink said.

“We still need each other and need to work together,” Zink said. “… You can call your mom or your grandma.”

The state created a website to share information on COVID-19 — coronavirus.alaska.gov.

COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

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