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Anchorage

Anchorage officials warn of possible new restrictions amid ‘steep cliff’ of COVID-19 cases and ICU concerns

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz delivers a COVID-19 community briefing on Friday, July 17, 2020 at city hall. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Anchorage officials are considering new coronavirus restrictions amid a sharp increase in cases within the municipality that could overwhelm hospital intensive-care units twice as soon as expected.

Anchorage hit a record this week for most new cases in a single week, with 231 total new cases, including nearly twice as many nonresident cases as reported from the previous week. The state’s daily count continued to grow, with 49 cases reported Friday involving 39 Alaskans and 10 nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard.

Municipal officials and epidemiologists issued dire-sounding warnings during a briefing Friday.

“It feels like we are climbing up a very steep cliff,” Christy Lawton, public health division manager in Anchorage, said about the city’s health care capacity. “And we are approaching a point that we could really tip over.”

Officials at the briefing urged people in Anchorage to take the virus, and measures to stem its spread, seriously.

At the beginning of last month, the city had 20 weeks before its intensive care unit capacity would be “threatened or overwhelmed,” said Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and medical doctor with the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Amid new cases and an increase in the rate of transmission within the city, that projected time period has now shrunk by half based on modeling done July 12, Hennessy said during the briefing.

The city could now run out of intensive care unit beds by Sept. 22, according to the new projections, Hennessy said.

Transmission is increasing, as is the number of contacts people have. In March and April, an average person may have come in contact with five or six people while infectious with COVID-19, compared to now when people have closer to 30 contacts, he said.

“In addition to more cases and more hospitalizations, the epidemic is accelerating,” Hennessy said. “That means we have to take stronger action, and the longer we wait, the stronger the action will have to be and the narrower that window will be. So this is very concerning.”

The projections for health care capacity in some ways are conservative, because they only account for Anchorage residents and Anchorage bed capacity, Hennessy noted. But people from other parts of the state may get referred to Anchorage hospitals and ICU beds.

“And that will even shorten the window of time that we have in preserving our health care capacity,” Hennessy said.

But Dr. Bruce Chandler, the disease prevention and control medical officer with the city, said Friday that while the average age of people with the illness has gone down in the last month, “not all of the young adults that are getting COVID are escaping unscathed.”

Of the 16 people with COVID-19 who have been hospitalized, five are under the age of 40 and three are under the age of 30, Chandler said.

Amid the rapid rise in cases and current threat to the municipality’s health care capacity, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said he was seriously considering implementing new restrictions. He said he is currently monitoring what has worked in other places, and is working with city leaders on a plan.

Sometime next week, after those discussions and analysis, he said he expects the city will have “some more precise policy prescriptions and potentially orders.”

“The decisions we make will not always be popular decisions, but the judgment that we exercise at this time is the judgment that will protect people’s lives,” Berkowitz said. “I would rather do something and overreact than not do something and underreact.”

New cases statewide Friday

Of the 39 new resident cases reported by the state Friday, 17 involve people who live in Anchorage, plus one in Chugiak and three in Eagle River. There were five new cases among Kenai Peninsula residents, including two in Seward and one each in Kenai, Soldotna and a smaller unnamed community in the northern part of the Peninsula. Farther north, four Wasilla residents and one Meadow Lakes resident also newly tested positive for COVID-19.

In the Interior, there were two new resident cases confirmed in Fairbanks, plus one in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area. The Fairbanks North Star Borough said in a statement Friday that its Central Recycling Facility will remain closed through at least July 24 after a contract worker tested positive for COVID-19.

In Southeast Alaska, two new cases were identified among Sitka residents. Additionally, Juneau officials reported eight new cases in an outbreak linked to a resident who received a positive COVID-19 test result July 11 — and all are associated with Alaska Glacier Seafoods, according to local officials.

The resident, whose case apparently resulted from community spread, started experiencing symptoms July 4, began quarantining and was tested July 6. On July 8, Alaska Glacier Seafoods started quarantining potential close contacts of the resident, officials say. Three days later, several employees on the same work crew as the first person started showing symptoms including body aches and fever. Of 17 employees tested on July 12, eight — all showing symptoms — had positive test results

The remaining 113 seafood company employees were tested Wednesday with results still pending, officials say. Two are showing symptoms and have been isolating. The eight employees who tested positive, including four residents and four non-Alaskans, are experiencing mild illnesses and are in isolation with their close contacts quarantining.

State data updated Friday reflected three new cases among Juneau residents and three among nonresidents, and Juneau officials attributed discrepancies in state and local numbers to “delays in data input.” Local public health officials are conducting contact investigations and will notify and quarantine any additional people as necessary, but as of Friday had identified very few close contacts within the community, according to the statement.

The other new nonresident cases reported on Friday included one in Kenai, three in Valdez, two in Sitka and one labeled as unknown.

So far in Alaska, 2,081 residents and non-Alaskans have tested positive for the virus, with nearly half — 1,271 — of those cases currently considered by the state to be active. There were two new hospitalizations reported on Friday, and no new deaths. Seventeen Alaskans with the virus have died since the start of the pandemic.

It was not immediately clear how many of the new cases reported by the state involved people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

On Friday, the Anchorage Health Department added F Street Station to its list of COVID-19 exposure locations, with July 10 as the period of exposure. The department adds certain locations to the list if they cannot contact everyone who may have been exposed there or if the department cannot conduct contact tracing “in a timely manner.”

“COVID-19 exposures can happen even when a location follows all recommended guidelines,” the department said in a statement.

The owner of F Street Station declined to comment on the notice.

Although the majority of locations named on the site so far have been restaurants and bars, health officials have said that these are not the only places where the virus has been transmitted.

“We are seeing COVID pop up in virtually every type of community setting you can think of,” said Lawton, the Anchorage public health division manager. “It’s an incredibly dangerous time.”

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