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Top doctor at Homeland Security touring rural Alaska ahead of commercial fishing season openers

The Cordova boat harbor. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive)

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The senior medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is touring Bristol Bay communities and elsewhere in Alaska this week as commercial fishing seasons get ready to open.

Dr. Alexander Eastman will also visit Nome and nearby villages, state officials said Monday.

“We’ve obviously got our eyes on upcoming events here,” Eastman said at a Monday evening briefing hosted by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Asked if fishing seasons that start with this week’s opener in Cordova prompted the visit, Eastman said a mix of factors “drove my bosses to give me the order to come to Alaska."

Among them, he said, are "the influx of a large amount of folks to the state in combination with her geography and some of the challenges the state faces on a day to day basis” even without the coronavirus when it comes to health-care resources.

This year’s fishing season is bringing thousands of out-of-state and international workers into small Alaskan communities, prompting fears of COVID-19 outbreaks in isolated places with few if any hospital beds. Some in Bristol Bay and Cordova have asked the governor to cancel the season.

Eastman said he didn’t yet know specifically what federal help his agency could bring.

“Folks in D.C. are watching Alaska closely,” he said.

The team is scheduled to fly to Nome Tuesday morning. They will visit what Dunleavy called a “cross-section of Alaska” that includes the villages of Teller, Stebbins and Brevig Mission before traveling to Cordova, Kodiak and Bristol Bay communities including Dillingham and King Salmon.

Traveling with him will be Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and Adam Crum, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

By date reported

Zink said state officials worked closely with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and local authorities to make sure communities were comfortable with outside visitors. There have been few COVID-19 cases reported in the rural areas the team is slated to visit including one in Nome, in a GCI store worker; one in Kodiak; and one in Cordova in an incoming fishing industry worker.

They will take “a series of precautions” to ensure Eastman doesn’t introduce COVID, Zink said. He was tested for the virus upon his arrival in Anchorage Sunday evening; the result was negative. The state epidemiologist recommended the whole team get tested, she said. They will wear masks and practice social distancing.

The state currently mandates a 14-day quarantine for incoming travelers,

“This is a rare exception” for a medical official at the center of pandemic response, Dunleavy said, calling Eastman “critical infrastructure.”

The state reported two new COVID cases on Monday, one in someone between 10 and 19, the other in their 30s. One is a Soldotna resident, the other lies in Fairbanks. A total of 381 Alaskans have been confirmed to have the virus, with about 50 active now.

Not reflected in Monday’s count: two more staff members at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau who tested positive, according to a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Corrections. Those results won’t show up in the state count until Tuesday. That brings the total count of prison staff to 10. No inmates have tested positive, spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher said.

There were no new hospitalizations reported Monday. Ten Alaskans have died after testing positive.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Dr. Alexander Eastman intends to visit Brevig Mission, not Russian Mission.

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