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Both Nome and Kodiak’s sole COVID-19 cases involve employees at GCI stores

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Nome and Kodiak reported their first cases of COVID-19 this week — both people who work at the GCI retail store in each community.

But any official link between them, and potential pathway for the virus, remained a mystery as of Friday.

Roughly 635 miles of mountains and tundra, plus the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, separate the communities.

Officials at the Alaska telecom company say they know of no interaction between the employees. Public-health authorities haven’t shared any information about how the infection might have spread between them either, they say.

“There’s no connection as far as we know,” said GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside.

State health spokesman Clinton Bennett said based on investigations to date, the employees "did not have contact with each other.”

Both store employees are men in their 20s, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data. The Nome case is considered locally acquired; the Kodiak case is still under investigation.

They are among Alaska’s 309 known confirmed cases of the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus causing a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people around the world.

The state reported nine new cases Friday: seven among Anchorage residents, one in Juneau and one in Kenai. The Juneau resident is a woman in her 50s, local officials say. Two of the other cases involve people from 10 to 19 years old; one is in their 20s; two are in their 30s; one is in their 40s; and two are in their 60s.

One additional person required hospitalization, bringing that total to 36. Nine Alaskans have died from the virus, including two who were out of state at the time.

Through Thursday night, 9,450 total tests have been run in Alaska. The state considers 128 of Alaskans with confirmed positives to be recovered.

First plasma donation from recovered patient

On Friday, one of the state’s recovered patients became the first Alaskan to donate his plasma here for possible treatment of critically ill patients battling the virus. The FDA has authorized the treatment for patients with severe or life-threatening cases while clinical trials continue.

An anonymous donor gave what’s called convalescent plasma Friday morning at the Blood Bank of Alaska in Anchorage.

There’s no immediate need for the unit of plasma he donated, so it will be stored and used when requested by an in-state hospital, Blood Bank of Alaska CEO Robert Scanlon said. Another 17 people have voiced interest in donating, Scanlon said. He said the blood bank hopes to create an inventory of the plasma to serve hospitals throughout the state.

GCI employee cases in Nome and Kodiak

Public health officials continue to work to pinpoint the sources of infection and close contacts for numerous newer cases of the virus.

When the Nome and Kodiak cases surfaced, GCI sent emails to people in both communities telling them about the COVID-19 cases and advising customers who visited the stores recently to monitor their health and seek medical attention if they have signs of illness.

The Nome man last worked in the store on April 3, Handyside said. The Kodiak man worked in that store through Monday.

Asked how many GCI store employees were tested or in quarantine, she said she didn’t have access to that data and referred questions to public health officials.

A spokeswoman for Norton Sound Health Corp. was not available for comment Friday. The public health office in Kodiak referred any questions to the state health department.

Bennett didn’t immediately respond to questions about testing or quarantine among GCI workers. Generally, he said, health officials interview infected individuals to find out how many close contacts they may have had, then interview the close contacts to recommend next steps such as health monitoring or testing.

The state defines a “close contact” as anyone who spent more than 10 or 15 minutes within 6 feet of a confirmed COVID-19 patient during the time they were considered infectious, generally 48 hours before symptoms begin.

Josie Bahnke lives in Kodiak — she’s the deputy city manager — but grew up in Nome and still has a phone number there. She got both emails GCI sent out. One came Tuesday evening about the Nome case. By around noon Wednesday, she got the other one about Kodiak.

It was “pretty shocking," Bahnke said Friday: two isolated communities, neither with a single COVID-19 case, then suddenly two within a day.

“This is unbelievable,” she said. “It would be almost impossible for there not to be some sort of connection.”

The Nome and Kodiak stores are now temporarily closed, Handyside said. They are expected to reopen, though the timing isn’t certain.

GCI began assembling a coronavirus response in February, and by mid-March had nearly three-quarters of its 2,000 employees working from home, she said. Among Anchorage stores, all but three are closed; most of the 20 stores outside the city remain open.

Coronavirus precautions include: limited hours; plexiglass in front of store registers; reduced number of people who can be within a store; and masks required for employees and customers.

“We really ask please only come in the store if there is something you can’t take care of online, on the phone, or through delivery,” Handyside said.

State leaders on what’s to come

Given Alaska’s complexities like small remote communities that sit off the road system, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said a reopening of sorts here would look different from reopenings elsewhere in the nation.

In response to a growing number of protesters pushing back on shelter-in-place orders nationwide, the governor said that he understood the sentiments of those who are frustrated.

“I understand it. I get it," Dunleavy said. "It wasn’t my hope or my vision that I would be the governor during a pandemic, but nonetheless I think Alaskans threaded the needle.”

He said that Alaska acted quickly to stop the spread of the illness and asked people across the state to help as it began preparing to expand its health care capacity. While the state works to reopen slowly, Dunleavy said that he would rely on Alaska’s COVID-19 data to determine how the reopening would look.

“I would just say to fellow Alaskans that we’re trying to get back to where we were as quickly as possible.”

The governor said that as the economy continues to remain largely shut down, some businesses may not come back on the other side of the pandemic.

However, ignoring the virus would have led to a dire scenario in which hospitals became overwhelmed and the illness could have spread to smaller communities in the state, Dunleavy said.

“It would have been devastating,” Dunleavy said. “And then what happens at that point is you end up shutting down or losing parts of the economy because so many people are sick.”

The governor said he believed if the state does not see surges of the illness that encroach upon Alaska’s health care limits, a reopening of Alaska’s economic sectors would continue.

The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said Friday that her main goal was to protect against any more loss of life in the state. People most at risk for adverse consequences of COVID-19 are older adults or people with underlying medical conditions, Zink said.

If people around the state can work to protect the people who are most vulnerable, as treatment options and even a possible vaccine are developed, Zink said, “then we would hope that less people would be exposed to this and ideally less people would die.”

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