Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a Friday, April 3, 2020 press conference in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a Friday, April 3, 2020 press conference in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

State recommends wearing face coverings in public

Number of Kenai Peninsula cases grows to 10; state tally rises to 157

State officials announced a new health alert on Friday asking Alaskans to consider covering their noses and mouths when they go out in public. The alert comes as the state reported 11 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The state’s new total count of COVID-19 cases is 157. Of the new 11 cases reported for April 2, one is from Seward and one is from Soldotna. This is Seward’s second case and Soldotna’s third case. That brings the total number of COVID-19 cases associated with Kenai Peninsula residents to 10.

In a Friday evening press conference, Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, addressed changes to the state website being used as a data hub for reported COVID-19 cases, https://coronavirus-response-alaska-dhss.hub.arcgis.com. She thanked Alaskans for being patient with recent changes to the website that may have been confusing.

“We’re trying to align our standards with our national guidelines,” she said. “And some of those standards have changed. And we’re continuing to make sure that we’re implementing privacy standards but making sure Alaskans have as much information as we possibly can.”

Zink also clarified that the state’s total number of reported cases only includes Alaska residents and does not include people who are residents of another state, but get sick here. One of the 11 new cases announced Friday involves a traveler who is not an Alaska resident, so the state’s total tally only rose by 10, from 147 to 157.

Zink also said that as the state begins finishing contact investigation in some disease cases, the state is starting to have a better idea about the number of recovered cases as well.

“We will be posting those up on the website,” she said. “Our current rate is that we’ve had a total cumulative hospitalization of 15 cases, total cumulative deaths of three, and we have a total cumulative recovered (number) that we can count as 16, although we suspect there’s much more.”

There are still only two cases associated with Homer residents. One is of a Homer resident who was traveling out of state, got tested in Anchorage and isolated in Anchorage, while the other is a case within the actual community of Homer.

According to an update from South Peninsula Hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro, the local hospital had collected 71 swabs and sent them off for testing as of Friday morning. So far, 51 tests have come back negative, she wrote in an email.

The state announced no new deaths on Friday, but Zink did announce one new hospitalization. To date, there have been a total of 15 Alaskans hospitalized for COVID-19. This is a cumulative number, Zink explains, which means it includes people who have since died or since recovered and been released.

Data reported by the state shows that one of Alaska’s total 15 hospitalizations was on the Kenai Peninsula.

Also announced in the press conference was the state’s 10th health alert. It is not a mandate, but rather a strong advisory. The alert recommends that Alaskans begin using cloth face coverings when they go out in public to help slow the spread of the novel virus. According to a press release from the state, there is sufficient evidence indicating that asymptomatic and presymptomatic people can “shed” the virus to others.

“This means that people who have no symptoms whatsoever may be infected with the virus and capable of transmitting the virus to others when interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing,” the release states. “This heightens the need for community-wide implementation of control measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people who are not experiencing symptoms of illness.”

The main way to reduce the spread of the virus is through social distancing and staying at least 6 feet away from other people.

“Another tool that may help to minimize transmission while people are around others outside of their household is the use of face coverings,” the press release states. “Because we are experiencing a nationwide shortage of medical supplies, including facemasks, we recommend that Alaskans make their own face coverings and wear them in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) — especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

The health alert asks Alaskans to make sure the cloth mask covers both their nose and their mouth. It states that masks should not be removed until a person returns home, and that the mask should only be touched by grasping the ear loops or ties. Masks should then be discarded or washed. The alert included links to YouTube videos for making face masks from bandanas or by sewing your own.

The public is urged to not use N-95 or surgical masks, as they are needed by health care workers and first responders in the state. Masks are also not a substitute for social distancing. But, the health alert states, “they may be helpful when combined with these primary interventions.”

The 11 new cases reported by the state on April 2 are from Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, the City and Borough of Juneau and the Southeast Fairbanks Census area. Of the 11 new cases, five are male and six are female.

In the Friday press conference, Zink noted that the state has recorded one case in Petersburg. She explained that case refers to the Southeast Alaska resident who contracted the disease and died in a long-term care facility in Washington state.

Asked about case reporting, and how the state is ensuring that cases are counted in the communities where people who test positive actually live, Zink said, “It’s not a perfect science.”

“Those numbers are, they’re one tool in the toolbox, but it’s really our (epidemiology) team who’s going through all of those cases to better understand where they are, where they’ve traveled, what else, that helps us to inform our data,” Zink said.

Zink said a number of factors can contribute to the locations of cases reported by the state being out of sync with where people actually reside. For example, she said one thing the state is seeing a lot of is that people will list a post office box number as their resident address, and the state has no way to verify where that person actually lives.

“We also see people reside in one area, but they get tested in another area like you mentioned, and then they spend the summers, say, in another area,” Zink said.

Another example is the people currently living in long-term care facilities who are confirmed positive for COVID-19, even though their permanent residency may be somewhere else in the state.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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