A spike in coronavirus clusters in Fairbanks has made the Interior a hot spot for COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new virus.
State officials have linked 15 COVID-19 cases in Fairbanks to two medical practices, one where providers say they aggressively tested patients and staff after a patient was confirmed to have the virus.
Meanwhile, health officials are investigating a separate outbreak involving at least six cases at a care facility in the Interior city.
State epidemiologists are focusing their efforts on Fairbanks right now because of the spike in numbers and potential for community spread through contact, officials say.
“We are concerned about those two clusters that are happening in Fairbanks,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a media briefing Monday evening.
As of Monday, there were 30 known cases of the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus in Fairbanks and North Pole. Anchorage has 61 total within the municipality.
The statewide total was 119 confirmed cases, with five new cases reported Monday: two new cases in Anchorage, two in Fairbanks, and one in Palmer. All of the new cases are in people between 30 and 59.
The virus has killed three Alaskans: A 76-year-old Petersburg man who died in Washington state; a 63-year-old Anchorage woman; and a 73-year-old Anchorage man. Seven people are hospitalized with COVID-19.
The state has received 60 additional ventilators from the federal government and is testing them now, Zink said during the briefing, which was joined by Alaska’s federal delegation.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday ordered a statewide shelter in place mandate, as well as in-state travel restrictions.
Health officials say social distancing measures can help ending disease spread in clusters like those appearing in Fairbanks.
Dunleavy emphasized that Alaskans need to continue social distancing, wiping down surfaces and washing their hands to help the state buy time for a predicted incoming wave of patients.
“We know we don’t want to do this forever. Like you, I, Dr. Zink, everyone else wants to get back to a normal life. But we don’t have the tools yet. We don’t have the vaccines, we don’t have the antivirals. We’ve got to gear up for what is going to be a number of folks getting sick and a number of folks probably needing these hospitals,” Dunleavy said.
Epidemiologists at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on Sunday announced 15 cases connected to McKinley Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, and ATI Physical Therapy, both located in the same building.
The known exposures occurred from March 9 until March 19, officials said, so the practices in the building have agreed to close through April 2 — 14 days after the last exposure, the recommended quarantine time.
McKinley Orthopedic’s owner said the cases came to light after several doctors were exposed to a COVID-19 patient during a procedure.
The practice opted to test staff and some patients aggressively, said owner Dr. Tim Carey. That meant they tested people who might have gotten turned away at other testing facilities, where COVID-19 symptoms are generally a prerequisite.
“We had a couple people who were completely asymptomatic that tested positive,” Carey said.
He said his clinic’s experience should serve as a public service as a warning to the community: “We know it’s here, and we’ve got to be careful.”
Another six Fairbanks cases of the disease have been linked to the Denali Center, a 90-bed care facility operated by Foundation Health Partners, which also runs Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
Two female residents and four health care employees affiliated with the center have tested positive, Foundation Health officials said at a press briefing Monday. All 73 patients currently at the center, plus 130 employees were tested. About half the results are back.
All the people testing positive were in the same part of the facility, said administrator Liz Woodyard. One of the patients is doing well, the other was transferred to a medical floor when her condition worsened but is improving, Woodyard said.
Another positive COVID-19 case involved a Tanana Chiefs Conference employee who tested positive after returning home from a vacation but did not go back to work, according to Victor Joseph, conference chief/chairman.
Monday’s briefing in Fairbanks, held via video teleconference, showed all of the hospital and care center employees wearing surgical masks.
Under a new Foundation Health policy, masks will be worn by “anybody in any of our facilities, at any time,” given the community spread of the virus ongoing in Fairbanks, quality medical director Dr. Angelique Martinez said. She urged residents to take the shelter at home mandate seriously: No knitting gatherings, dinners with friends, or house parties.
Fairbanks mayor Jim Matherly expressed his frustration over reports of whole families at grocery stores instead of just one person.
“Everybody stay safe,” Matherly said. “Don’t take your family shopping.”