The first Alaskan killed by COVID-19 was in Washington state when they contracted the illness and died, state officials announced Tuesday evening as they stepped up their call for Alaskans to avoid close contact with others.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said in a media briefing Tuesday that the individual had been in Washington for some time and that officials believe that’s where they contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. The death is considered an Alaska case under federal rules, she said.
The announcement came as Zink and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy implored Alaskans to avoid contact with people outside their household and avoid public spaces and activities. Dunleavy stopped short of officially mandating residents to “shelter in place” as urged by numerous physicians over the weekend, as well as local leaders in the Interior.
But Zink said that, to get the point across, “If we need to say shelter in place, if we need to say stay at home, that is what we’re saying."
Officials announced six new confirmed cases since Monday evening: two more in Fairbanks, two more in Ketchikan, one in Sterling and one in Juneau. Of those cases, one involved an adult under 30, three individuals were between 30 and 59 years old, and two were over 60.
The state’s confirmed total is now 42 — 17 of which are in Anchorage, the most in the state — and while a majority of cases are travel-related, state officials say it is clear that community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring in Alaska.
As the number of cases rose, communities stepped up their response to the new coronavirus. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Juneau residents must now “hunker down" and stay at home as much as possible to curb the spread of COVID-19 under a resolution adopted by the City and Borough of Juneau. Exceptions include working in a critical job, getting essential items or health care or getting fresh air outside. Businesses deemed not essential were ordered to close to the public. The stay-home mandate is in effect until 10 p.m. April 7.
Those restrictions come as Juneau officials announced the capital city’s second confirmed case of COVID-19, involving a patient in the critical care unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital.
The hospital said the patient had traveled to Portland, Oregon, as well as Washington state, and state officials believe they had picked up the virus in the Lower 48, according to Juneau officials.
Elsewhere in Southeast Alaska, the two new positive cases in Ketchikan were processed through Creekside Family Medical Clinic, according to a statement Tuesday from city and borough officials. They are self-isolating, and public health officials are working to investigate their contacts.
Neither of the two infected people had recently traveled, the statement said. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough has already issued an emergency proclamation that calls for residents to shelter in place.
The mayor of Fairbanks, which has seen its number of cases rise steadily, issued an emergency declaration Tuesday and urged residents to stay home and away from public places unless absolutely necessary. The city council will vote to ratify the declaration at a meeting March 30.
Dunleavy encouraged Alaskans to wash their hands, not go out and avoid crowded places. The governor also said he expected to announce more information soon about Alaska companies helping to produce medical supplies and other items to make up for shortages.
Asked whether it was time for stricter measures, Dunleavy said everyone should “distance themselves” but criticized requests to “lock the entire state down, like some other countries have.”
Alaskans changing their behavior to protect against the virus makes more of a difference than if starting tomorrow, the state started writing tickets for people who don’t shelter in their homes, he said. He encouraged residents to get outside provided they can be away from other people.
The state is trying to build up the health care infrastructure while increasing testing, but Zink said officials would only be able to do so if people heeded the advice of public health experts.
Several people with the illness have shown “incredibly mild symptoms,” she said, and may not even know they’re carrying and subsequently spreading the virus to other.
“You may feel fine. You may feel like nothing’s going on. And you may develop a fever in two to three days and you may be carrying that disease right now,” Zink said.
Asked about how long it would take to stop the virus in Alaska, Zink said the answer depends on what people do right now.
"What you do now is going to literally mean the life and death between your neighbor, your loved one, your spouse, yourself.”
Zink said she felt like she had spent a majority of the day fielding questions about whether certain people were “exceptions” to the recent mandates issued by the sate.
“And the reality is, this virus doesn’t care what your exception is,” Zink said. “This virus is going to infect you if you don’t slow things down."
“Don’t let this virus take off,” Zink said. “This is our chance, this is our moment to do this.”
[Watch the state’s Tuesday evening media briefing below.]