No cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Alaska, state officials said Monday, but that will likely change.
“I think it’s highly likely that we will soon have a case here in Alaska,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.
Three people have been tested for the virus in Alaska as of Monday morning, Zink said. Two came back negative, and one result is pending.
Zink, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Health and Human Services Commissioner Adam Crum talked with news media Monday afternoon at the governor’s Anchorage office, as the coronavirus continues to spread through the country.
Six deaths have been reported, all in Washington state. The number of cases being reported by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, individual states and other trackers, such as one from Johns Hopkins University, are increasing quickly. Zink said based on that information, the disease will likely make it to Alaska.
Because of that, the state is taking precautions, and asks the public to as well.
During the briefing, Dunleavy said he’s is asking the Legislature to approve $9 million in federal funds and $4 million in state general fund money.
The state plans to fund five public health nurses to travel around the state to help educate rural areas on how to combat the virus.
“We’re going to actually use them to move out in front, to go to communities to make sure that community health centers, tribal health clinics, other aspects like that are educated as best as possible on how they themselves can do the screening, what comes up in local situations, as well as to work with schools to give them some background," Crum said.
The money will also fund epidemiology staff, lab staff as well as reserve dollars to reimburse other labs if “capacity or capabilities become available in the future,” Crum said.
”This is a forward-planning aspect,” Crum said. “We’re just trying to make sure that if there is a surge that we can respond as best as possible, so we’re making sure we’re out in front.”
Zink said state health officials have been working with rural Alaska health care providers, building off preexisting plans for other viruses like ebola, SARS and MERS. There is a phone number for rural providers to call with questions for state public health officials. Also, Zink said there was recently a training session with Dutch Harbor providers to go over how a case on the island would be handled.
“It is the remote villages that we really need to be thinking about,” Zink said.
Iditarod still on
Starting this weekend, some of those remote villages will take outside visitors due to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. As of now, Dunleavy said there is no reason to cancel public events, including the Iditarod, which will bring people from around the world into Alaska.
“There may be updates to that, there may be recommendations, there may be a request to not hold some of these events. But right now, that's not the case,” Dunleavy said.
Zink said she met with Iditarod staff Sunday to go over precautions, such as keeping at least six feet from someone who is sick, and how to screen for illness.
Zink said it’s important for Alaskans to take proper precautions, while taking care to not overreact. It is important to have a 14-day food supply and backup prescription medication in case you get infected and have to stay home. However, the state’s supply chain of imported goods is not expected to get disrupted.
Zink said while the virus can live on surfaces, it can’t do so for very long.
“We don't have any evidence that it lives on cargo coming through, we would have seen a very different pattern spread around the world if it was the case. So you can trust the cargo that's coming in, you can open your Amazon boxes and not be afraid.”
Dunleavy said the state has been preparing for the virus for over a month. That’s in part because a plane evacuating Americans from Wuhan, China, landed at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to refuel on Jan. 28.
Zink said proper protocol took place during that brief stop and has continued as cargo planes from other countries have landed in Anchorage.
“We are a huge international hub. It’s something that we’ve been working on since day one. We’ve been meeting with the airport as well as numerous cargo companies to talk about what signs and symptoms they should look for, to make sure that we’re aware of people coming in and out,” Zink said.
Zink said to wash your hands and avoid touching your face. If you start to feel sick, stay home from school or work, eat fruits and vegetables and drink water, like you would with any other flu. If you start showing more extreme symptoms, like trouble breathing, go to your primary care physician.
Zink said to stay updated, check local news media and government websites.
Alaska has been able to conduct tests for COVID-19 since Thursday. Prior to that, the state could send tests to the CDC, though that wasn’t necessary, Zink said.
Zink said on Thursday, the CDC “significantly broadened” its guideline of when someone should be tested, so that increased the potential number of tests done in the state.
A doctor can determine if you need to be tested. Those tests can be sent to labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and take about four hours to process. Heidi Hedberg, the state’s director of public health, said news media will be informed within about an hour of a positive test result.
Zink, Dunleavy and Crum all emphasized protecting vulnerable populations, such as the elderly. Zink said with each year in age, a person is more likely to contract the virus.
For example, a 15-year-old is more likely to get it than a small child, and a 65-year-old is more likely to get it than someone in their 50s.
Zink said the state has heard questions from Alaskans about whether to cancel spring break plans. People can still travel, but they should be aware of the added risks, she said.
“If you travel to another country, they could close down the borders,” Zink said. “They could say you’re not allowed in or you’re not allowed out. It’s important to think that when you travel, you may be asked to be quarantined someplace for 14 days.”
The same goes for other states within the United States, she said.
Anchorage School District Travel restricted
That risk factored into Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop’s decision to cancel all school-sponsored domestic travel outside of the state for students and staff through April.
“I want you to know that I do not take this decision lightly,” Bishop said in an email to parents and staff. “This is hard business, and I am fully aware of how this impacts our students and our families. I am sorry for that.”
The district earlier canceled international travel.
In explaining the decision, Bishop said 50,000 people travel through district buildings daily. Many domestic flights taken for school trips stop in Oregon and Washington, where coronavirus outbreaks are spreading.
But Zink said it’s important to realize that the majority of people who contract the virus will have mild symptoms and won’t need to be hospitalized. But, she said, don’t let that figure make you complacent.
“Eighty percent of people will have very mild symptoms that won’t require hospitalization, but the fatality rate is quite high,” she said. “And it may be somewhere between 10 to 20 times the percent fatality rate that we saw from flu, which does kill millions of people a year. So it is important to take this seriously.”