This article has been updated to correct the total number of Alaska COVID-19 patients currently being hospitalized to three. Two are in critical condition, Dr. Anne Zink said during a Wednesday press conference.
As the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state continues to rise, Alaska officials are focusing on containment.
The state announced 17 new cases of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the novel coronavirus — in Alaska on Wednesday evening, the largest single-day increase in cases so far. There were 59 confirmed cases in the state.
The totals for each Alaska city according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services are now: 25 in Anchorage (which includes the cases at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson), 11 in Ketchikan, eight in Fairbanks, three in North Pole, three in Eagle River/Chugiak, two in Juneau, two in Sterling, two in Palmer, one who is a Homer resident, one in Seward and one in Soldotna.
The case the state is attributing to Homer is that of a Homer resident who was traveling outside Alaska in the Lower 49, according to a press release from the City of Homer. The person landed in Anchorage when they returned to Alaska, was tested in Anchorage, and remains in isolation in Anchorage. The person has not returned to Homer, but is being counted as a Homer case on the state website because of their residency.
Of the total 59 state cases, 24 of them are considered to be travel related, while 16 are considered to have been caused by “close contact” between an infected person and another person. Another 15 cases are still being investigated.
State officials including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum spoke with reporters during a press conference Wednesday that was broadcast online.
Of the new cases announced Wednesday, eight of the people who tested positive are male and nine are female, Zink said. Three of the new cases involve people between the ages of 19-29, while nine are between 30-59, and five are over the age of 60.
Only one of the new cases is associated with travel, Zink said. Three are considered to have arisen from “close contact” with a person who was already infected, and 13 are still under investigation.
Zink said that, at this time, two patients in Alaska are hospitalized and in critical condition. The total number of hospitalized patients in the state is three, according to the DHSS website.
Asked about a statewide plan to care for and treat patients with COVID-19, Zink said Alaska is building off the work that other doctors like Dr. Jay Butler, Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have already done when it comes to combatting the flu. Butler was also part of Wednesday’s press conference telephonically.
“As Dr. Butler mentioned, this is a different virus than the influenza virus,” Zink said. “People are in the hospital longer — it affects older people. And we’re trying to take all that into consideration as we’re learning it (the coronavirus).”
Zink said the state has been working closely with national, international and tribal partners to figure out a plan that works best for patients in Alaska. One of the concerns is making sure that the illness does not spread throughout hospitals once patients are brought in.
“I don’t think any one facility can handle all of this,” Zink said. “This is a large disease, this is a pandemic, and we have limited capacity in this state. And so we’re thinking broadly about what that looks like.”
Each community in Alaska will have a slightly different looking plan for taking care of COVID-19 patients with needs of varying severity. Some patients with very minimal illness will be asked to stay home.
“That’s an important part — not everyone needs to be in the hospital,” Zink said. “We are working on how to monitor them either by phone call, or by text messaging, or actually monitor on place to be able to see what their respiratory rate looks like.”
For those with mild illness who may need oxygen but not necessarily critical care, Zink said that could be done in a medical setting outside of a hospital, such as a surgical center not being used. That option will look different in different communities, she said.
“And then the people that really need ICU care and that really need intensive … care that Dr. Butler was talking about and that you’ve read about with ventilator support — that would really be in the hospital in a closed off section to try to really keep that disease really limited to that area,” Zink said.
Bryan Fisher, a State of Alaska Incident Commander, said state officials have been coordinating to identify needs and gaps in service in the fight against COVID-19, in both rural and urban Alaska.
“We continue to receive materials like personal protective equipment, supplies from the federal government through the strategic national stockpile,” Fisher said. “And we continue all day, every day to send those materials out to rural Alaska and urban Alaska as needed.”
Fisher said the public is well aware the state is currently prioritizing the use of those supplies because they are limited, statewide, nationally and globally.
Asked whether any Alaska inmates or Department of Corrections staff members have been tested for COVID-19 at this time, Zink said there are no inmates or DOC staff members who have tested positive at this time. She said the state has many tests that have come back negative, so there isn’t exact information at this time as to how many of those negative tests could be from inmates or DOC staff.
“The corrections team have been phenomenal at going through multiple scenarios to say what it would look like if staff got sick, if a member got sick,” Zink said. “They’ve really done a fantastic job of closing off visitors but trying to allow inmates to be able to communicate to those loved ones outside.”
Zink said there is a lot of movement back and forth, with people coming and going from prisons.
“And so we’re really mindful of what that looks like and we really want to make sure that we don’t have an outbreak in a closed community like that,” she said.
One reporter in the conference noted that the state mandate closing all restaurants and bars to dine-in service is set to expire on April 1. Asked whether the administration would consider extending that mandate, Dunleavy said that move is “very likely.”
Another asked at what point Dunleavy will consider stricter state mandates further restricting travel or advising residents to shelter in place.
“When our medical team says that that … is a trigger that we absolutely have to pull at that point,” Dunleavy said.
Zink noted that her recommendations are based on what the population in Alaska is doing. When people stop moving and respect the current recommendations, the state won’t have to mandate it, she said. If people continue to be mobile and risk the further spread of the disease, then the state has to step in, she said.
“We continue to try to run in front of this virus, but it grows at an exponential rate and that’s part of the reason that we keep asking and begging and pleading that all Alaskans will help run with us,” Zink said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.