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Alaskans urged to increase precautions amid coronavirus fears

Dr. Anne Zink, the chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 9, 2020, in Anchorage. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

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Urging elbow bumps over handshakes, enhanced hand washing and less face touching, Alaska health officials said Tuesday that preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus will require changes to everyone’s behaviors.

Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, also urged Alaskans over age 60 or people with underlying medical conditions to stay away from mass gatherings. People who feel sick should avoid visiting older relatives, she said.

“There’s no doubt that the virus is spreading across the country,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said. “Chances of it coming here are pretty good just given what’s happened in other states and other countries.”

The symptoms of COVID-19 include shortness of breath, fever and cough.

Older people and people with severe underlying medical conditions are at greater risk, and nursing homes in Washington state have been hard-hit by the virus.

Zink on Tuesday acknowledged that Alaska’s "long-term care facilities are at very high risk.”

Zink said the state is working with communities statewide to make sure they have the information they need, but that protecting high-risk groups would take a broad effort.

“Not going to visit Grandma in the nursing home when you’re sick is just as important as the nursing home being prepared,” Zink said.

The guidelines around who gets tested and how people are tested have also shifted to become more efficient, Zink said. Previously, if a patient met the criteria to get tested — they’d visited an area where the virus had spread within a community and presented symptoms — their doctor needed to consult state epidemiologists.

Now, doctors and health care providers can skip that step and send the patient’s samples straight to a lab for testing, Zink said.

Nationally, concerns over testing capacity continued this week. But in Alaska, Zink said that the state wasn’t rationing testing and had instead asked health care providers to be “mindful and meaningful” about who they decided to test.

“Doing a test on someone who sprained their ankle clearly is not going to have any use,” Zink said.

The state now has two commercial labs that can test for the virus as well. Zink said the state could perform around 120 tests a day, but that demand for testing had not reached that number.

Zink stressed that a COVID-19 test neither prevents the disease nor cures it.

“The best thing you can do if you have a cold, shortness of breath, not feeling well (or a) fever is to stay at home and stay away from others,” Zink said.

Consistently washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, covering coughs and sneezes, stopping shaking hands and starting to disinfect surfaces are all important steps because the virus spreads through droplets, Zink said.

“This is not a disease about buildings. It’s not a disease about the air,” Zink said. “This is a disease about individuals and droplets. And so protecting yourself from those droplets is the way that you protect yourself.”

Zink also said that if you feel sick, you should call a health care provider first before heading into the doctor’s office or clinic.

Dunleavy noted he canceled town halls on the Kenai Peninsula over virus concerns. They’re also avoiding shaking hands in the governor’s office, he said.

“We all should be changing our behaviors now," Dunleavy said. "Because what the what the research is showing us is that by changing the behaviors you lessen the chance of contracting the virus and you lessen the chance of getting sick.”

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