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Alaska News

State urges COVID-positive Alaskans to personally notify close contacts as surge strains public health staffing

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: November 23, 2020
  • Published November 23, 2020

Kia Hasson of Visit Healthcare performs a free COVID-19 test at the Loussac Library on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

State health officials on Monday issued a new alert urging Alaskans who test positive for COVID-19 to notify their own close contacts due to a surge in new cases that’s strained the state’s ability to keep up.

Alaska, like many states, is recording record numbers of new coronavirus cases. Here, the number has topped 500 most days in the past two weeks. Hospitalizations are also rising to new records almost daily.

But the critical message from health officials Monday concerned contact tracing, a strategy considered crucial to slowing the spread of the virus. Contact tracers reach out to people who came within 6 feet of infected people for at least 10 or 15 minutes. Close contacts are instructed to quarantine.

The number of new cases has “strained the public health response, creating a backlog in case and contact investigations,” the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said in a press release Monday afternoon. Anyone who gets a positive test result is urged to notify their own close contacts as soon as possible so they can quarantine immediately.

A spokesman for the agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information.

State across the country are facing similar challenges in contact tracing and efforts to reduce spread of the virus, officials here say. The Centers for Disease Control on Monday issued new guidance to help overwhelmed local public health officials prioritize contact tracing.

The latest surge of cases in Alaska has forced the state’s contact tracers to triage cases to make sure they are “reaching the people most at risk for severe symptoms and those most likely to spread the disease,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said in a statement. “Even with additional staffing, multiple systems are unable to keep up with reporting, data entry and outreach to all infected individuals.”

Contact tracers try to reach out the first day a positive result is reported.

Now, the state says, public health contact tracers are prioritizing who needs to be called first based on factors recommended by the CDC including how long ago the person was tested, if they live or work in a location where there is a high risk of transmission like a nursing home or if the person is at higher risk for severe illness based on age or other factors.]

People who test positive can find information to help them effectively isolate on the DHSS COVID-19 webpage. Alaskans who need food, housing or other non-medical assistance to effectively isolate or quarantine can contact Alaska 2-1-1 (dial 211 or 800-478-2221), their local Public Health Center or emergency operations center.

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