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‘Numerous’ health care workers among Alaska’s confirmed COVID-19 cases as tally rises by 10

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Two hospital workers in Fairbanks are among the state’s 69 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus just beginning to rise in Alaska and surging in parts of the United States.

State health officials added 10 new confirmed cases to Alaska’s count Thursday. Five new cases are in Anchorage including Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, one is in Juneau, and there are two more each in North Pole and Fairbanks, respectively.

“There are numerous health care workers who have tested positive,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said at a media briefing Thursday evening. Zink said she didn’t immediately have details as to how many.

Six of the new cases were confirmed in women and four in men, according to Zink.

One patient was younger than 18, Zink said. Two were between 19 and 29, five were between 30 and 59, and two were older than 60.

None of the cases is related to travel, said Zink, who added that four of the people had come into close contact with others who had tested positive, and six cases remained under investigation.

The Fairbanks Memorial Hospital workers are both isolated at home, hospital officials said Thursday. They came into close contact outside the hospital.

The number of residents killed or hospitalized by the virus stayed the same. A 76-year-old Petersburg man with congestive heart failure contracted the virus in Washington state and died there. Three people have been hospitalized, officials say.

Some of the people who are hospitalized were transported from other facilities, which is “pretty common in Alaska," Zink said.

“When we have someone who kind of exceeds the capacity in a certain area, they may need to be transferred.” Zink said.

When asked about Alaska’s health care capacity in the face of the growing pandemic, Zink described how concern about limited resources influences the guidelines issued by the state.

“If we felt like we had the health care infrastructure to safely be able to care for all the people who would have the disease based on our modeling, we would not be asking for any social distancing,” Zink said.

Part of the state’s strategy is not just minimizing the number of people who might become sick but also trying to limit how many people get sick all at once, a surge that could overwhelm the state’s health care system, Zink said. This helps ensure people who have heart attacks or get into accidents can also continue to receive care, she said.

Dunleavy said social distancing is crucial because Alaska, like other states and countries, does not currently have the health care capacity to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases should it come.

“I just want to be clear with Alaskans, we currently do not,” the governor said. “We are building ours up.”

Anchorage’s mayor on Thursday said he now expects the city’s “hunker down” order to extend past the original sunset date of March 31.

In a news media briefing Thursday evening, Dunleavy said he plans to make an announcement clarifying “rules, advisories, mandates as relates to travel” during another briefing Friday at 1 p.m.

The governor also said Alaska manufacturers had stepped up to help produce supplies that are needed for testing and protecting against COVID-19.

‘A lot of concern about the older population’

Fairbanks Memorial also saw its first hospitalization of the pandemic: a woman under 40 being tracked by the health department after she came into close contact with a known COVID-19 patient, officials there say. The woman came to the hospital after getting tested when her symptoms worsened and was later found to be positive.

She’s since been discharged, but the seriousness of her infection should sound a warning that young people are vulnerable, said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, quality medical director with Foundation Health Partners.

“There is a lot of concern about the older population, which is completely warranted, but as we’ve learned more about this disease we clearly understand it seriously impacts younger-aged populations," Ramirez said.

The new confirmed case in Juneau, that area’s third, is a “close contact” of someone who already tested positive, according to the City and Borough of Juneau.

All told, 26 of the state’s confirmed cases have been linked to travel, 10 non-travel, 20 close contact with an infected person and 13 are listed as pending.

Mat-Su — where the number of confirmed cases remains two, both Palmer residents — is still expecting an increase in positive results.

“We will have more cases in the Mat-Su Borough, it’s just a matter of time,” Ken Barkley, the borough’s emergency services director, said Thursday at a media briefing. “Please, please exercise social distancing.”

In the first of what might become a weekly segment, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz joined host Steve Heimel for “Hunker Down Anchor Town” to answer questions about the new coronavirus and Berkowitz’s order for people to refrain from public outings that aren’t essential.

The mayor said the city’s fight against the virus was just beginning and said his order would remain in place beyond the end of the month.

“It’s going to definitely extend past March 31,” Berkowitz told a caller. “I can’t see any reason why we would end on March 31. We’re just in the beginning phase of when the epidemic and the pandemic is striking us.”

He stopped short of estimating when the order will end, saying it will last for a while.

For some officials, the virus is personal.

North Pole Mayor Mike Welch announced he was headed to a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility as he signed off a call-in press conference.

Several colleagues wished him well.

As he was finishing up at the test facility Thursday afternoon, Welch said by phone that he worked at city hall Monday before his stamina and eyesight started to falter and he came down with a nasty sore throat. He described his symptoms as “everything from throat to ears to eyes, the aches and all that good stuff," though no fever.

From testing, Welch was headed for home isolation — and a five- to seven-day wait for results.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber contributed to this story.

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