Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a press conference Thursday, March 26, 2020 in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a press conference Thursday, March 26, 2020 in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

State COVID-19 cases climb by 10

This brings the total number of illnesses caused by the novel coronavirus in Alaska to 69.

State officials are seeking to bolster supplies and infrastructure as the total number of COVID-19 cases in the state climbed by 10 on Thursday. This brings the total number of illnesses caused by the novel coronavirus in Alaska to 69.

Five of the new cases are from Anchorage, one is from Juneau, one from North Pole and one in Fairbanks. Two of the total 10 cases in Fairbanks are health care workers from Foundation Health Partners, the foundation that operates Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported.

Of the 10 new cases announced Thursday, four are male and six are female, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a Thursday press conference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office. None of the new cases are related to travel, she said.

Zink said one of the new COVID-19 cases is a person under the age of 18. According to a press release Thursday, that child is a relative of a previously diagnosed case and the first youth to be infected. Two other cases were people between the ages of 19 and 29, five cases are in the 20-59 range and two cases are people older than 60.

According to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Anchorage (including the cases at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson) now has 30 cases, Ketchikan still has 11, Fairbanks now has 10, North Pole is up to five cases, Eagle River/Chugiak has three, Juneau has three, Palmer has two, Sterling has two, and Seward and Soldotna both have one case. Homer is tallied as having one case even though the person caught the illness after traveling in the Lower 48, was tested in Anchorage, and remains in Anchorage for isolation.

Of the total 69 cases, 26 are associated with travel, which means the exposure happened outside of the state. Ten of the total cases are not travel related, 20 cases stem from someone having had “close contact” with an already infected person, and 13 cases are still under investigation.

In Ketchikan, for example, the state reports that only one out of the city’s 11 cases is travel related, while two are non-travel related and eight cases, the majority, stem from close contact.

To date, 1,225 tests for the virus have been completed in the state laboratory and 1,163 tests have been processed by commercial labs for Alaska.

There are currently three people who have been hospitalized for the disease. When asked by a reporter, Zink said all three people were hospitalized in different regions of the state. Asked whether any patients being treated for COVID-19 have been transported from one facility to another, Zink said there have been some transports.

“That’s pretty common in Alaska,” she said. “So when we have someone who kind of exceeds the capacity in one area, they may need to be transferred.”

Zink said Alaska has also moved on to begin reviewing people “whose symptoms have resolved and are recovering.”

“We’re working with our public health nurses in many of our local communities to determine if someone does resolve and how they’re doing,” she said. “Because we do know that many people do recover from this disease.”

Zink and Dunleavy both spoke about the infrastructure of Alaska’s health care sector, how it’s not enough to handle the projected rise of the disease in the state and how Alaska officials are working to bolster it. For example, Zink said most people are aware of existing shortages of medical supplies such as masks, swabs, and even tubing needed to treat people with COVID-19. Some kinds of masks can be hand-sewn by members of communities, she said, but many health care workers need much more sophisticated masks like N95 respirators.

Dunleavy has said that Alaska’s own manufacturing sector will step in to try to ease the burden of those shortages. Distilleries are being contacted to help produce hand sanitizer, and a company in Palmer has signed on to manufacture swabs, he said.

“We’ve got an outfit that’s going to churn out literally thousands, and thousands, and thousands of swabs,” Dunleavy said. “I was just on the phone with them today and that production is going to begin here immediately.”

Other ways to think about capacity are in terms of the number of buildings the state can physically treat people in, the number of beds that can be used when treating COVID-19 patients and the number of health care professionals the state has to do the work, Zink said.

Alaska has just over 2,000 hospital beds that would typically be used to care for a patient with the disease, Zink said.

Both Zink and Dunleavy said the current infrastructure in Alaska is not enough to handle the projected and modeled growth of the disease.

“We haven’t found a state or a country that has shown they have the capacity to deal with the surge in health-related issues associated with this virus,” Dunleavy said. “… I just want to be clear to Alaskans — the question is, do we have the health care capability at this moment to deal with the surge, or the magnitude of the surge, that some of these other places have dealt with? The answer is no.”

Dunleavy said measures to encourage social distancing are directly related to the fact that Alaska’s health care capacity cannot handle the spread of the disease on its own.

“If we did have the health care capacity, we wouldn’t be doing the social distancing,” he said.

Zink stressed adhering to the state’s mandates and advisories about social distancing and restricting travel as a way to buy the state time to build up the health care infrastructure so that Alaska is better prepared. “Literally every day that we can buy to get more (personal protective equipment) for the front line, to get more ventilators, to get more alternative care sites set up, helps us to be able to help you when we see this disease really take hold in Alaska,” she said.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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