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Statewide shelter in place, travel ban ordered as Alaska sees first in-state COVID-19 death

School busses are parked at the Anchorage School District transportation center on Friday, March 27, 2020. Schools have been ordered temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Amid word of Alaska’s first in-state death from the new coronavirus this week, the state issued a series of sweeping new mandates aimed at corralling the spread of the disease.

Starting Saturday at 5 p.m., Alaskans were ordered to shelter at home and close all non-essential businesses, officials said at a media briefing Friday evening. Under the same state health mandate on social distancing, residents must stay 6 feet away from anyone who isn’t a household member.

The state is also banning all non-essential travel within Alaska, to slow the spread of the virus between communities. That travel mandate took effect Saturday morning.

“We just want to let folks know at this point, given where we are and the cases are growing, we want to try to isolate as many Alaskans as possible,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.

The business closure exempts health care, public government and essential businesses. Closed businesses include those deemed non-critical, such as entertainment venues, gyms and businesses where people come into close contact, such as hair and nail salons. Restaurants are allowed to remain open only for drive-thru, delivery and carry-out service; dine-in service is not allowed.

Travel to support critical infrastructure or for critical personal needs is still allowed, and smaller communities can choose to add stricter measures. The travel ban does not affect the Legislature.

The mandates will be re-evaluated by April 11.

The “tightening” of the mandates came in response to the rising number of cases as the state attempts to build health care capacity, Dunleavy said. The new mandates are part of the state’s attempts at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus and avoiding a sudden surge of ill people, which could overwhelm Alaska’s health care system.

Alaska’s first in-state coronavirus death occurred at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage on Friday. Meanwhile, the state also announced a steady rise in the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. The Municipality of Anchorage has seen the largest increase of cases this week.

The person killed by the virus in Anchorage was a 63-year-old woman with underlying medical conditions, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.

The Alaska Native Medical Center said a patient seen “for an unrelated reason” was tested Monday for COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. By Wednesday, the state lab reported the test came back positive.

The patient, who was isolating at home and “doing well,” experienced a rapid deterioration of their condition, the hospital said. The emergency department was notified and the patient returned to the hospital.

The Alaska Native Medical Center hospital on Friday, March 27, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Staff put the patient in immediate isolation and they were admitted to the hospital’s negative pressure unit, officials there said. “Our condolences go out to our patient’s family and loved ones. We also extend our appreciation to our staff who cared for this person and provided support and comfort to the family," the hospital said.

Her death was likely due to coronavirus, but her decline in health may have been exacerbated by her underlying medical condition, Zink said.

One other Alaskan has died from COVID-19 in Washington state, where he is thought to have contracted the disease.

Zink said Thursday that “numerous” health care workers had tested positive for the illness in Alaska. The health department later declined to give a specific number.

“Just as we do not list the professions of other patients, this information will not be shared by the state at this time,” Clinton Bennett, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services communications director, said by email Friday evening.

Alaska’s prior statewide mandates included a 14-day quarantine for any travelers arriving in the state, a prohibition on dine-in services at bars and restaurants, the closure of entertainment facilities such as theaters and gyms, and a school closure until May 1.

The new health mandates announced Friday come after doctors and leaders in the Interior asked for a travel ban and statewide shelter in place. A “hunker down” order in Anchorage had already been extended to April 14. Both Zink and Dunleavy said the new social distancing mandate doesn’t prohibit outdoor activity, provided that Alaskans maintain at least 6 feet of distance between one another.

Throughout the week, Zink and Dunleavy urged Alaskans to practice social distancing, but did not issue a statewide mandate that ordered people to do so until Friday. Alaska now joins more than 20 other states with mandates that order people to stay home whenever possible as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19.

A violation of a state COVID-19 mandate can subject a business or organization to an order to cease operations and/or a fine of up to $1,000 per violation. It’s also possible a person failing to follow the mandates could be criminally prosecuted for reckless endangerment and subject to up to a $25,000 fine, the maximum for a Class A misdemeanor like this.

“This is certainly not the end of the world, but it’s going to be a fight for several weeks and potentially several months,” Dunleavy said.

As a way to determine whether the orders need to continue by April 11, the governor said the state would look to see how quickly cases accelerate in Alaska and the number of supplies that are available.

Zink said that the people with confirmed cases of the illness at present had likely acquired the disease one to two weeks earlier. For that reason, it won’t be possible to see whether confirmed case numbers are impacted by social distancing efforts for another week or two, Zink said.

“We all want to get back together and get back to life as quickly as we can,” Zink said.

[BELOW: Watch Gov. Dunleavy’s briefing on the new COVID-19 mandates with state officials.]

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