A viral outbreak that’s infected thousands globally isn’t yet known to have a presence in Alaska, but health care professionals are monitoring the situation.
None of the 12 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. have been in Alaska, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data last updated Friday. None of the 337 investigated cases in the country have come from the Last Frontier either.
“We have not sent anything to CDC for testing,” said Louisa Castrodale, epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health.
Castrodale said in light of the worldwide attention the new virus first detected in China is receiving, if there is a case detected in Alaska, it’s likely the public will quickly be aware of it.
She said the Division of Public Health continues to monitor news and information related to the virus and share information with health care providers and hospitals throughout the state.
Katie Bausler, community relations director for Bartlett Regional Hospital, said BRH also continues to monitor CDC and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data, and meetings to discuss the virus are expected next week.
Castrodale said it’s also worth noting that someone could have a coronavirus without having the one that has received so much recent attention.
“This is the novel coronavirus that people are interested in right now, but there are definitely some run-of-the-mill coronaviruses people get throughout the year,” Castrodale said.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses so-named because their surfaces have crown-like spikes and they include illnesses including severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), according to the CDC.
If a patient at a health care provider or hospital was suffering from novel coronavirus symptoms — fever, coughing, shortness of breath and trouble breathing — and recently traveled to China, the Division of Public Health would be contacted, Castrodale said.
“The testing you can do right now for the novel coronavirus is only available at the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters,” she said. “However, they have started shipping out test kits to state public health labs,” Castrodale said. “It’s expected we would have local testing capacity here in Alaska.”
Coronavirus and cruises
What the virus will mean for a tourist season that’s expected to bring more than 1.4 million cruise ship passengers to Southeast Alaska is unclear, but if folks aren’t making their way to Juneau by way of China, it may not be a major factor.
Castrodale said air passengers coming from China are already receiving guidance from Customs and Border Protection when entering the country. The overwhelming majority of novel coronavirus cases have occurred in China.
“If things continue to be this way, I would think we could continue to have that sort of funneling,” she said. If in the next couple of months if that risk is broader than China, it’s hard to know what will happen then.”
The first cruise ship is not expected in Juneau until April 24, according to Cruise Line International Association’s port schedule, and the cruise line trade association is already taking steps to address concerns.
A Cruise Lines International Association Alaska spokesperson referred the Empire to a statement from the cruise industry trade association and three-page frequently asked questions document.
“The health and safety of cruise passengers and crew is and remains the number one priority of CLIA and its member lines, which make up over 90% of ocean-going cruise capacity worldwide,” reads the statement
CLIA member cruise lines that are CLIA members must deny boarding to all persons who have traveled from, visited or traveled via airports in China, Hong Kong and Macau within two weeks before embarkation, according to the statement. Boarding will also be denied to anyone who has had close contact with or helped care for anyone suspected of having or diagnosed with having novel coronavirus.
Those policies may change as the outbreak changes.
“In coordination with cruise lines, medical experts and regulators around the world, CLIA and its member lines will continue to closely monitor for new developments related to the coronavirus and will modify these policies as necessary with the utmost consideration for the health and safety of passengers and crew,” reads the statement.
Spread and seriousness
Novel coronavirus symptoms include coughing, fever, shortness of breath and trouble breathing according to the CDC. Symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as two weeks after exposure.
A lot is still unknown about how the virus spreads, according to CDC, but it seems to be able to spread from animals to people and from people to people. Person-to-person spread most often happens through close contact. Shipped goods aren’t thought to spread the virus.
“It’s not thought to be a particularly hearty virus,” Castrodale said. “It’s not thought to survive on surfaces for very long.”
While the disease is spreading fast in China, it does not appear to be especially deadly, according to the World Health Organization.
“I think we’re always concerned when there’s a new illness because we don’t know a lot about what is the ultimate fatality rate and what are the parameters for spread and transmitability,” Castrodale said. “I think it’s hopeful the fatality rate is not as high as some of the other ones, but I think everyone is watching and waiting for more information and more data to be able to feel that those estimates are reasonable.”