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5 ferry passengers test positive as Alaska reports 107 new COVID-19 cases

The M/V Matanuska heads into Wrangell in Southeast Alaska on Friday, July 3, 2015. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive)

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Alaska’s daily tally of new COVID-19 cases pushed back over 100 on Friday while state officials announced passengers on the Alaska Marine Highway System were probably infectious with COVID-19 while traveling this week.

The spike in cases included 80 new COVID-19 infections in the Municipality of Anchorage — involving mostly residents, plus one nonresident — which health officials said may be due in part to a backlog in reporting data.

Officials at the state’s transportation department announced that five passengers traveling together on the M/V Matanuska tested positive for COVID-19 and were “likely infectious while on the vessel,” according to a statement from the department.

The passengers boarded the Matanuska in Kake on Monday, went through Sitka that day and got to Juneau by 11 p.m. that evening, the transportation department said.

The boat’s crew will get tested before leaving from Bellingham, Washington, where it arrived Friday morning.

Although an investigation into the cases is still ongoing, the state’s health department hadn’t found any close contacts of the passengers who tested positive by Friday, the transportation department said.

The Municipality of Anchorage saw shrinking daily new case tallies over the last week after multiple weeks of high case counts, though the daily tally grew Friday.

Friday’s 80 new cases in the municipality stemmed partially from a backlog in entering data, said Dr. Janet Johnston, a epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department.

That means last week’s numbers might actually be slightly higher, though still likely lower than the week prior.

By Thursday, Anchorage had 1,673 active cases of COVID-19, according to Johnston. The city saw 289 more new cases between Aug. 6 and Wednesday, which is 154 fewer cases than the city reported in the week prior, Johnston said.

Hospitalizations remained steady in the last week, but given how many active cases there are in the municipality, Johnston said the city is still cautious about hospital capacity.

New projections from researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage now show that the city has 16 weeks before it could potentially overwhelm its intensive care unit bed capacity, she said.

That’s a decrease from modeling the researchers completed with data from late July showing that Anchorage was potentially just eight weeks before reaching such a threshold — halving the previous cushion of time the city had before it could run out of beds meant for the sickest patients.

There are 20 of 82 intensive care unit beds available and 125 ventilators available out of 148 in Anchorage, Johnston said.

“My reading of the Anchorage dashboards is Anchorage hospital bed capacity is becoming limited,” said Anchorage Health Department medical officer Dr. Bruce Chandler.

Even as cases have decreased the last week, he said it’s not clear that “we can say reliably that we’re out of the COVID storm.”

There are still “flare-ups” of the illness around the city and COVID-19 is widespread throughout Anchorage, he said.

He noted that the virus hasn’t changed; it still spreads easily to people who are close together, especially indoors. And, Chandler said, people can be infectious without showing symptoms.

A dozen cases of COVID-19 at the Anchorage Pioneer Home have been reported in the last two weeks, and as testing is ongoing Johnston said it’s likely there will be more cases there.

Statewide, there were 107 new cases of COVID-19 reported among both residents and nonresidents on Friday. By the end of Thursday, 33 people with the illness were in the hospital, along with five others who were under investigation for COVID-19.

Alaska’s daily COVID-19 case counts were lower in the past week compared to late July and early August, when new case counts would exceed 100 daily amid several major outbreaks in the seafood industry and a rapid increase in positive test results confirmed among both residents and nonresidents.

Health officials attributed the recent decreases in part to mitigation measures taken in Anchorage, where the spread of the virus has often driven the state’s new case numbers.

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