Alaska saw a big jump in new daily COVID-19 cases Thursday, according to data released by the state’s health department, after a month in which state officials had gradually loosened pandemic-related restrictions on businesses in an effort to boost Alaska’s economy.
The 13 new cases reported Thursday reflect the largest single-day increase since 15 were reported April 12.
The cases emerged among residents in regions across the state, including four in the Anchorage municipality; one in Juneau; two in Homer; one in Kenai; one in Nikiski; three in other smaller Kenai Peninsula Borough communities; and one in the North Slope Borough. The North Slope resident had traveled from Anchorage through Utqiagvik to their home community, the Arctic Slope Native Association said Wednesday.
“I know this increase in cases today may come as a surprise to some, but this is why we continue to closely monitor cases and investigate each one,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said in a statement.
Zink said since many of the results were reported late Wednesday, they’re still being investigated.
"It’s too soon to have details about the source of transmission, but other factors such as increases in testing may also play a role,” Zink said. The Kenai Peninsula cases “do not appear to be connected,” she said in a virtual town hall meeting Thursday evening.
The new cases reflect all of the positive results, out of 1,607 total tests run, that were sent to the state on Wednesday. Of those who tested positive, seven are male and six are female. The cases involve two people between the ages of 10 and 19, one person in their 20s, three people in their 30s, two people in their 40s, four people in their 50s and one person in their 60s.
At present, there are 10 people hospitalized who have either contracted the virus or are suspected of having it. Through Wednesday, 425 Alaskans have tested positive, as well as 17 nonresidents in the state. The deaths of 10 Alaskans have been tied to COVID-19.
As Alaska continued to see new case counts below five cases daily in May, the state steadily relaxed its pandemic-related restrictions. At the same time, state officials encouraged Alaskans to take measures to curb the spread of the virus, and continued efforts to ramp up testing and build up Alaska’s supply of protective equipment.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has previously said that he expects more cases as the state continues its reopening efforts.
On April 24, the state initiated its first phase of reopening, enabling restaurants to open to dine-in service and retail businesses to open at 25% percent capacity, as well as allowing small social gatherings. Two weeks later, on May 8, capacity at many businesses increased to 50%, and theaters, gyms and bars were allowed to reopen for the first time under state guidelines with limited capacity.
More recently, on May 22, Alaska allowed businesses to operate at full capacity while encouraging them to follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
In Anchorage, some hygiene and physical distancing rules for businesses are still required, while at the state level some guidance remains in place as advisories instead of requirements.
Traveling between places on Alaska’s road system has been allowed since May 12. The state still restricts non-essential travel to communities off the road system and requires a 14-day quarantine for travelers from outside Alaska.
Dunleavy said during Thursday’s town hall that the state will provide an update on the mandatory quarantine for travelers on Friday.
“We’re working on some protocols to be able to try to have some Outside folks come to Alaska to help with the very businesses that we’re talking about today, that are seasonal, that are tourist related, fishing related, etc.," Dunleavy said. "Again, we’re going to do our best to thread this needle where we keep Alaskans safe but also try and get our economy back up off its knees.”
Health officials continue to recommend rigorous hand-washing, staying at least 6 feet from non-household members and wearing a cloth face covering in public as some of the best ways to keep the virus from spreading to others.
In recent days, as more people were tested across the state, several asymptomatic individuals tested positive for the virus. Symptoms can take as many as 14 days to show up, and range from trouble breathing to gastrointestinal issues.
In a Monday virtual town hall, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said many patients have shown only mild symptoms — a loss of taste and smell, mild aching, mild fatigue with a headache. McLaughlin encouraged Alaskans to have a low threshold for getting a test and to consider doing so if “anything seems off.”
Last week, the state updated its guidelines for getting a COVID-19 test. Anyone with symptoms of the illness can be tested, as can certain asymptomatic people including those going through an emergency medical procedure or being admitted to a health care facility. Close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 patients might also get tested, as can health care workers and people in places with an outbreak.
“I think what’s just really striking to me about this disease is how much virus you can carry and how much you can transmit it before you even realize that you’re symptomatic,” Zink said during Monday’s town hall.
Zink also encouraged people to keep track of everyone they’d been in contact with.
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