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Alaska sees 3 new confirmed cases of coronavirus as state clamps down on non-urgent medical procedures

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Alaska officials announced three new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alaska on Thursday, bringing the state’s total number of people who have tested positive for the illness so far to 12.

Two of the new cases are in Fairbanks while one is in Ketchikan, said the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, during a press briefing Thursday.

The two Fairbanks individuals are in their 20s and 30s and had not traveled outside Alaska in the past two weeks, Zink said. Officials are trying to determine whether they are close contacts of the Fairbanks individuals who had previously tested positive. It is not clear whether the two patients in Fairbanks were infected through community transmission, Zink said.

The individual in Ketchikan had “a known, direct contact” with someone who tested positive, said Zink, who said that case “is not a community case at this time."

No one has been hospitalized and all of Alaska’s current cases are being monitored at home, Zink said. They’re doing well from a medical standpoint and have been cooperative with health officials, Zink said.

“Everyone has been super helpful," Zink said.

State officials also issued two new health mandates on Thursday evening: One requires health care providers, surgical centers, hospitals and patients to postpone or cancel all elective or non-urgent procedures for the next three months. The other requires that elective oral health procedures be postponed for one month.

Because there’s no solid definition for “non-urgent or elective,” the state called on hospitals to create a task force of doctors to evaluate borderline cases. The mandate doesn’t apply to surgical cases moving through the emergency room or for patients that are already hospitalized.

“The goal of these (mandates) is really to free up personal protective gear for our frontline workers so that they have it, so they’re able to care for you in a time of need,” Zink said.

As the illness is expected to spread, the state says, personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and gowns need to remain available for health care workers responding to COVID-19 and beds for medical care need to remain open for coronavirus patients. Providers in communities across the country have reported that shortages of such supplies are hindering their ability to ramp up testing for the novel coronavirus, much less treat COVID-19 patients.

Earlier this week, the state had asked hospitals to call off non-urgent procedures, but it was not yet a mandate. Several hospitals previously said they were working to comply with that request.

On Thursday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced similar mandates for the city to preserve protective gear for medical workers. In addition to restricting non-urgent dental, veterinary, optometry and ophthalmological procedures, the mayor also introduced mandates for other businesses where personal protective equipment is used.

The mandate states that construction companies, funeral homes, hair and nail salons, janitorial companies, oil field services, universities and power and energy companies must “safeguard personal protective equipment (PPE) in their existing stock, and use PPE only when absolutely necessary.”

The city’s mandates are in place until April 14.

The three new confirmed cases reported Thursday come in addition to the nine travel-related confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the new coronavirus — that the state has reported in the last week. Overall, there are now four confirmed cases in Anchorage, five in Fairbanks, two in Ketchikan and one in Seward.

Zink said the first person in Alaska to test positive for COVID-19, a cargo pilot traveling through Anchorage’s international airport, is doing “quite well” and hasn’t been experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19 for some time.

A group of emergency room directors published an open letter in the Daily News on Thursday that urged public officials to “shut down any non-essential out-of-state travel," and placerestrictions on in-state travel, especially to remote communities.”

Asked during Thursday’s press briefing whether he was considering doing so, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said, “nothing is off the table, we’re examining any and all approaches to protecting Alaskans.”

The governor said there could be more mandates and announcements coming from the state soon.

Dunleavy also said he had been in contact with Alaska’s federal delegation this week and received clarification regarding the announcement that the U.S. and Canada would be closing the border to non-essential travel.

The border crossings at Hyder, Haines, Skagway and Tok remain open and still allow travel, “especially for goods and services,” Dunleavy said.

“We’re going to be having discussions here probably in the next couple of days about non-essential travel, but right now those border crossings are not closed,” Dunleavy said.

Public health experts have cautioned against non-essential travel as a way to keep the virus from spreading.

“The more that you can avoid non-essential travel, the better off we’re going to be,” Zink said.

Zink also advised distancing from people who have recently arrived from high-risk areas, even if they live in the same household. Based on recent data from China, where the outbreak began, “families definitely have higher likelihood of transmitting that disease amongst each other and that’s starting to be replicated here in the United States,” Zink said.

State officials continued to urge Alaskans to wash their hands diligently, clean surfaces, avoid close contact with others and avoid public activities.

It’s important for people to know that “the small things you do make all the difference in the world right now,” Zink said.

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