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Scores of Alaska physicians implore governor to ban travel, order shelter in place statewide

Nurse Karin Shacklett pre-screens a person to be tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site off Lake Otis on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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Physicians around Alaska are urging Gov. Michael Dunleavy to ban non-essential travel and order Alaskans statewide to shelter in place before the coronavirus takes hold here as it has in other places.

Alaska’s remoteness affords the unique position to slow the spread of the virus, but more extreme measures are necessary immediately, according to a letter signed “with grave and urgent concern” by more than 120 doctors sent the governor on Saturday. Many of the doctors are Anchorage-based, but some practice in communities around the state including Ketchikan, Wasilla, the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks.

“The death toll is rising in New York, medical systems are near collapse in Italy and our citizens continue to interact with large numbers of people for non-urgent causes leading to community spread of COVID19,” the letter states. “Alaska’s relative isolation will make a travel ban particularly effective. Our medical resources are finite and we are potentially a week away from New York and 2-3 weeks from Italy.”

Statewide, as of Sunday evening, there were 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alaska: Seven in Fairbanks; 13 in Anchorage; six in Ketchikan; two in Mat-Su, and one each in Juneau, Sterling, Soldotna and Seward.

Data suggest the majority of COVID-19 infections are transferred by people without symptoms, the letter says. Until Alaska has broader testing capacity, the physicians say, the only way to slow the spread of the disease is to institute mandatory home quarantine and a ban on non-essential travel.

“We implore you to take immediate action so that our hospitals and health care providers will not be overwhelmed when the inevitable wave of new cases arrives," it states. "Acting today will likely save Alaskan lives. We and all Alaskans depend on your prompt leadership on this matter.”

Asked about the letters, the governor’s office forwarded a statement from the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink:

“We appreciate and understand the concern of these physicians ... The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ epidemiology team is working around the clock on the response to this pandemic. Next steps are constantly evaluated and discussed several times a day. What all Alaskans need to do right now is make sure they are washing their hands, properly covering their cough or sneezes, practicing social distancing and staying home when they are sick. These steps will help everyone stay healthy. Every Alaskan who makes these changes helps mitigate the spread of this virus across our state, which could save the lives of our fellow Alaskans.”

Anchorage family practice physician Dr. Juliana Shields collected signatures for the letter. Shields said she continued to add more physicians — including those representing larger groups — over the weekend but wanted to send the letter as soon as possible.

“If we sit and wait until there are more cases, it’s just going to be too late,” she said Sunday afternoon. “The rate of rise of illness from this disease is nearly exponential and has the potential to be devastating. It sounds severe but it’s not alarmist to take precautions in this situation.”

Nearly 50 physicians from Fairbanks sent a similar letter on Sunday.

“The urgency is coming from ... front-line, first-line responders,” said Dr. Jenny Lessner, a family practice doctor in Fairbanks. “We’re seing patients who clinically appear to have a pattern consistent with COVID. That’s what’s concerning. Before we even get positive tests back.”

Patients most commonly are showing up most with coughs, even mild ones, shortness or breath or fever, Lessner said. The major concern is people without symptoms could be spreading the virus without knowing it.

Emergency department medical directors from numerous hospitals around the state late last week asked the governor to shut down any non-essential out-of-state travel.

Some Alaska communities are already enacting localized measures to combat the virus. The City and Borough of Juneau on Sunday voted to order all travelers from COVID-19 infected locations to self-quarantine for two weeks. Ketchikan is urging all residents to shelter in place. Anchorage is ordering residents to “hunker down” at home.

Among other measures to combat the spread of the virus, the state has closed bars, limited restaurants to take-out and delivery, encouraged social distancing and asked residents who have traveled Outside in the past 14 days to self-isolate.

Lessner said the medical community’s push for stricter measures comes from a human level -- the doctors signing those letters are worried about their patients and fellow providers but also about their neighbors, friends and families.

The letters aren’t politically motivated, Shields said.

“This is entirely a health and safety issue," she said.

Read the letters:



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