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Testing reveals coronavirus cases in Alaska’s prisons and jails but no clusters yet, officials say

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Seventeen Alaska inmates in jails and prisons around the state have tested positive for COVID-19, most of them since the state began testing everyone entering the correctional system this month.

But Alaska officials say so far the new cases here are separate and aren’t coming in clusters or outbreaks like those reported in Lower 48 facilities, even though the state’s daily infection count is soaring. Some prisons Outside have reported positive cases in three-quarters of the population or more. Some prisoners have died.

The state reported 137 new infections on Tuesday, including 110 in residents and 27 in nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. Twenty-two Alaskans have died with the virus, including a Fairbanks man in his 40s whose death was reported by the state Tuesday, Alaska chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a briefing.

Alaska’s death rate of 3 per 100,000 is the country’s second lowest. All of the state’s coronavirus fatalities have involved people with pre-existing medical conditions, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said.

As of Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Corrections was reporting two coronavirus cases in the general inmate population who contracted the virus inside a facility and 15 who tested positive in broad screening upon remand when they arrived. The remand cases were reported at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, Mat-Su Pretrial Facility, Fairbanks Correctional Center and at an outpatient treatment facility where three people were returned to custody for quarantine.

There was an outbreak among employees at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in April, but Alaska has so far avoided the large COVID-19 prison outbreaks seen in other states, though some family members of inmates have questioned the state’s information about positive cases.

The state reported coronavirus infections in just a few inmates before the screening program began this month.

Two inmates tested positive: one at Goose Creek Correctional Center in April and one at the Anchorage jail in May.

Once the state started broader testing, an inmate at Fairbanks Correctional Center tested positive in early July. Another 12 inmates tested positive since then, according to state corrections spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher.

Since July 1, the Department of Corrections has made an effort to screen everyone entering the state’s jails and prison system for the virus with testing and a 14-day quarantine within the facility. About 600 people are remanded to serve jail time each week. They all get tested at booking, officials say.

Each facility has a designated area for quarantining or isolating inmates, Gallagher said. If someone is identified as a close contact of a positive test, they are retested and their 14-day quarantine clock resets.

The corrections department is conducting an average of 85 tests a day, she said. The agency also tests anyone with observed or reported symptoms, she said in an email. All of the cases appear unrelated.

Staff at the state’s jails and prisons must now wear masks if they can’t maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others, under a new policy announced last week by Gov. Dunleavy for all state buildings and facilities. Inmates are encouraged to wear masks around others, though DOC is still treating each housing mod as a family unit in an effort to keep their social circle as small as possible.

As of Friday, there were 4,331 offenders in state custody, which is just under 90% capacity, Gallagher said. There were 280 inmates living in halfway houses.

New virus cases reported Tuesday

By Tuesday, Alaska reported 2,353 active cases of COVID-19 statewide.

Case of the illness among residents rose 34% in the past week, Zink said Tuesday. A majority of new cases involve people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, she said.

“We’ve had a rapid increase in both resident and nonresident cases,” Zink said.

Dunleavy on Tuesday announced changes in the state’s policy for travelers from outside Alaska, requiring nonresidents to arrive in the state with a negative COVID-19 test result instead of allowing them to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or test when they arrive. The change begins Aug. 11, and the governor said it’s a means of redirecting limited testing supplies on hand to Alaskans.

“If you come to Alaska, you should have a negative,” he said.

The state will also release information about changes to seafood industry protocols this week, Dunleavy said. Alaska’s biggest outbreaks have occurred among seafood industry workers, including residents and nonresidents.

More than half of the new cases reported by the state Tuesday were in the Municipality of Anchorage, which saw 83 new cases involving 71 Anchorage residents and three nonresidents, six Eagle River residents and three Chugiak residents.

In the Mat-Su, three people from Wasilla and two from Palmer tested positive, according to the new numbers. Among nonresidents, one person in Big Lake, two people in Wasilla and one person in Willow tested positive as well.

In the Kenai Peninsula, there were two new cases in Kenai residents, two in Seward residents and three nonresidents in Seward, while there were also cases involving one person each from Homer and Soldotna.

There were two cases involving nonresidents in Valdez, a case in someone from Cordova and in a smaller community within the Valdez-Cordova Census Area.

Five Fairbanks residents tested positive, as did one person from North Pole. An employee at a Fairbanks care facility tested positive for COVID-19, Foundation Health Partners said in a statement Tuesday. The asymptomatic employee, who works at the Denali Center — which dealt with a cluster of virus cases this spring — was tested during routine employee testing.

“Due to strict adherence to PPE precautions, the exposures are all categorized as very low risk,” officials said in the statement.

The employee contracted the illness outside of work, and all employees and residents at the Denali Center are getting tested within two days, Foundation Health Partners said.

The state also reported six new cases among residents and three among nonresidents in Juneau.

There was one case each reported among residents of Utqiagvik, Ketchikan and smaller communities in the combined Yakutat Borough and Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area and the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area.

The City and Borough of Wrangell announced another case of COVID-19 on Monday involving a resident there who was a close contact of someone who tested positive. There were three active virus cases there as of Tuesday, and officials said there’s evidence of community transmission within Wrangell.

On Tuesday, the state also reported 11 nonresident cases in unknown locations and one nonresident case in the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula boroughs.

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