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Amid surge in COVID-19 cases, Alaska reports new death and new mask policy for state buildings

People walk past a sign requiring masks in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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Saying Alaska is in the midst of a surge in coronavirus infections, Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday announced a new mask policy for state office buildings but stopped short of any other new mandates.

Starting Thursday, state employees and visitors in state buildings and facilities will have to cover their faces if they can’t maintain a 6-foot distance from one another, the governor said at a briefing Wednesday. That includes places like lobbies and elevators but not desks if employees have enough room away from co-workers.

“We want to do everything we can, especially over the next two weeks, to see if we can kind of arrest this surge,” Dunleavy said.

The state’s new coronavirus infection numbers continue to soar as new cases often top 100 every day with younger adults driving the increase. Officials say they’re watching concerning metrics like potential issues with ICU capacity in Anchorage and they can no longer conduct contact tracing on all cases.

Alaska health officials reported another death linked to COVID-19 involving a resident Wednesday.

The person who died was a woman from Fairbanks in her 80s with pre-existing health conditions, according to an Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesman. Generally, older people and those with other medical issues are considered more vulnerable to serious illness or death from coronavirus.

The death brings the total in Alaska to 19 deaths since the pandemic began in March. Alaska still has one of the lowest coronavirus death rates in the country, second only to Hawaii.

The new state building policy marks a departure from a June memo written by Dunleavy’s attorney general that state employees didn’t fall under a municipal mask order in Anchorage.

“We don’t think it’s a big leap,” Dunleavy said Wednesday, adding that “some folks want to politicize any and all actions” after saying it was unfortunate masks had become such a political issue.

Rising case counts and concerns about hospital capacity prompted Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to announce new restrictions on bars, restaurants, gatherings and entertainment facilities Wednesday. The governor, at his briefing two hours after the mayor’s, said he planned no new mandates. Instead, Dunleavy’s briefing included a lengthy discussion of how to use face coverings, which he dubbed “Mask 101.”

Dunleavy has repeatedly declined to require masks at a broad, statewide level but has been telling Alaskans with increasing urgency to wear them whenever they can’t maintain social distance and avoid gatherings. Community spread is occurring from house parties, backyard barbecues, camps, churches and funerals — any type of person-to-person interaction, health officials say.

The governor asked younger people to “really put up your guard”: Do business over the phone if possible, go to the grocery store once a week instead of five times a week, get together outside at a distance.

The state’s hospital capacity is stable, Dunleavy said. There were 28 COVID-19 patients hospitalized around the state Wednesday, including three in the ICU and one on a ventilator.

But the state’s alert level for health care moved into “orange” for intensive-care occupancy, state medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said during the briefing. The state’s testing supplies are also a problem area.

ICU occupancy in Anchorage on Wednesday was 59%, according to Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. But the state alert looks at the ability to meet a surge rather than operate safely now, Kosin said.

The current occupancy is “manageable and would otherwise not be necessarily concerning, but when you factor the wave that is likely coming, we all should take pause,” he said in a message.

Of the 28 positive cases in the hospital Wednesday, 19 were in Anchorage, Kosin said. The state numbers hit 20 for the first time Saturday and now are almost at 30 a few days later.

The health care system faces likely stress given the “compounding case counts” from the last few weeks, he said. “There is only one way to slow this down. We need to step up, mask up, and do our part as individuals.”

Another four patients were added to the state’s total count of people hospitalized with the virus since March, bringing that number to 109, according to the state COVID-19 dashboard. The state reported 94 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, including 92 in residents and two in nonresidents.

Generally, nearly 20% of people getting tested are showing no symptoms, according to Zink. The state had performed more than 185,330 tests by Wednesday.

Of the 92 Alaska residents whose cases were reported Wednesday, 50 were male and 42 were female, according to state health data. More than half were younger than 40: Four were younger than 10; eight were between 10 and 19; 24 were in their 20s; 16 were in their 30s; 11 were in their 40s; 11 were in their 50s; 11 were in their 60s; five were in their 70s; and two were 80 or older.

Anchorage residents continue to account for many of the new cases, with 42 reported in the municipality Wednesday, including one in Chugiak and two in Eagle River.

Three new resident cases were reported on the Kenai Peninsula, two in Kenai and one in Seward; eight cases in Mat-Su, two in Palmer and six in Wasilla; 11 in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, which includes Copper River communities; nine in Fairbanks and one in North Pole; three in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, which includes Fort Yukon; one in Utqiagvik; seven in Juneau; three in Ketchikan; two in Sitka; and two classified as unknown.

The two new nonresident cases were reported in someone coming to Anchorage for an unknown purpose and another visitor in an unknown location.

The number of active coronavirus infections in Alaska reported Wednesday was 1,719 out of a total 2,619 since the pandemic began.

The governor’s decision to require face coverings in state office buildings came after a positive test taken by a state employee in downtown Anchorage’s Atwood Building, where Wednesday night’s briefing took place. Health officials say the state’s relatively high testing levels no longer account for the rising numbers of cases, which are associated with community spread around the state.

The COVID-19 case reported last week involving an Alaska Department of Natural Resources employee temporarily closed part of a floor of the Atwood Building, agency officials said.

The Division of Oil and Gas employee on July 14 told managers they felt sick and would work from home and get a COVID-19 test, according to DNR spokesman Dan Saddler. By the next day, the employee felt ill enough to call in sick for the rest of the week. Their positive result came back Friday.

Managers at the division immediately informed the person’s close co-workers of the symptoms, Saddler said, describing the number as “a handful.” They were asked to work from home. Tests taken by two additional employees came back negative.

A deputy director sent an email to a broader pool of employees on Tuesday of this week, he said. The office and the infected employee’s work station were cleaned and a contractor was brought in to do a “deep cleaning” of the office suite after the positive result came back Friday.

A memo detailing the new policy on face coverings for state office buildings said all employees, contractors or visitors to state facilities must wear a face mask if “social distancing of at least six feet or more between individuals cannot be maintained. This applies to entryways, hallways, stairwells, elevators, enclosed parking areas, and personal offices where a six-foot distance cannot be exercised.”

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