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Eight new cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Alaska on Saturday, and 10 new cases were diagnosed on Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 32. So far, individuals in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, Juneau, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Sterling, Soldotna and Seward have been diagnosed with COVID-19. There are no confirmed cases in Kodiak.
Some new cases diagnosed in Soldotna and Anchorage were related to travel to the Lower 48, according to news releases from the Department of Health and Social Services. But a growing number of cases could not be traced to travel outside the state. All cases were in adults and none were hospitalized, according to the news releases issued Saturday and Sunday.
“All of the new cases are isolating themselves at home and their close contacts are being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms,” Alaska’s State Epidemiologist, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, said in the news release Saturday. “All of these individuals are being conscientious and cooperating fully with public health officials.”
At least two of the new Anchorage cases have had no contact with other confirmed cases, according to McLaughlin.
“This indicates that community transmission of COVID-19 appears to be occuring in the Anchorage area,” he said, according to a Sunday news release.
McLaughlin emphasized the importance of self-isolating for individuals experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, which include a dry cough, fever and respiratory distress.
“The biggest challenge in our containment effort is when people continue to interact with others when they have symptoms. I can’t underscore this point enough: If you feel even mild symptoms of a respiratory infection, you need to immediately go home and stay away from others until your symptoms resolve,” he said.
As of Saturday, 968 individuals had been tested for the virus in Alaska. More than 30,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19, causing more than 400 deaths.
All public and private K-12 schools in Alaska have been ordered to remain closed until May 1, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced during a news conference Friday evening. During this time, all after-school activities are also banned.
The Kodiak Island Borough School District has been preparing for the possible closure of schools. Spring break has been extended until March 30, at which time the district will begin delivering distance learning through online platforms, according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux.
The state also issued a health alert regarding travel. The state is strongly advising Alaskans to cease non-essential travel within and outside of the state for 30 days. Alaskans currently out of the state are advised to return to their home communities. All airports and airlines in Alaska are mandated to prominently post state-issued travel recommendations. Tour operators were ordered to immediately suspend reservations for any out-of-state visitors.
“We expect any traveler who leaves a community with known cases of COVID-19 to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival to their destination community and monitor for symptoms of illness,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska chief medical officer, said in the mandate.
“Most of our cases are travel-associated,” she said during the Friday press conference. “It’s really important that we have people not move around as much right now.”
Zink said an outright travel ban was not deemed necessary at this time, but urged Alaskans to take the recommendations seriously. Dunleavy said community-to-community spread could trigger additional travel mandates.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t shut the entire state down because we believe that’s going to have some serious ramifications for the people of Alaska,” Dunleavy said.
Individuals returning to Alaska from China, South Korea, Europe and Iran are mandated to self-quarantine for 14 days. Individuals returning to the state from other destinations are advised to self-quarantine and self-monitor for a 14-day period.
“Those 14 days are so important,” Zink said. “If you cannot work from home, you should not return to work at this time unless your work supports critical infrastructure.”
Critical infrastructure includes transportation, agricultural operations, fishing and fish processing, energy, manufacturing, water, wastewater and sanitation, government, public safety and first responders, health care, financial services, communications and defense.
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said a rural health planning group has been set up to assist remote villages in addressing the risks associated with the coronavirus.
“If there is a positive case (in a remote village), we are going to try to find a way to bring that patient into a larger hub so it’s easier for the hospital,” Crum said.
Kodiak Island is home to six remote villages. The village of Akhiok, with a population of around 50 individuals, announced on Friday that it is closed to non-essential travel from outside of Kodiak.
“By emergency ordinance the city of Akhiok, supported by the tribal council, has at this time closed Akhiok to all non residents and non emergency personnel,” Akhiok Mayor Dan McCoy wrote in a Facebook post made on the Friends of Kodiak page. ”Do not come to Akhiok without an invitation or without contacting the city office first.”
Anyone who arrives in Akhiok will be screened at the airport. Anyone arriving from off-island will need to self quarantine for 14 days. Once a case is confirmed on the island, the quarantine mandate will apply to individuals arriving from other parts of Kodiak.
“This is the new normal,” McCoy wrote, adding that the city may implement more changes in the future.
Zink said it’s important to continue social distancing even after the 14-day period of isolation, and called on young adults to help their communities limit the spread of the virus.
“You are likely to be carrying the disease but not likely to be impacted. This is your time to help your community,” she said. Zink said healthy young adults can help by being babysitters or caregivers, calling the elderly, checking on neighbors, and volunteering with the workforce.
She called on Alaskans to donate blood if they can due to a statewide shortage. She also called on health clinics, veterinary clinics and businesses to donate any personal protective equipment and swab materials they have in stock to testing sites. Swabs and protective equipment are necessary to test for the virus.
“Our limitation continues to be around the swab itself,” Zink said. “There isn’t enough testing ability to test everyone. We are doing our best with the supplies that we have.”
Zink said that despite the challenges faced by Alaska testing facilities and healthcare providers, the state is doing better than others in the Lower 48.
“This is a call to action to all Alaskans,” she said. “I can’t overstate the importance of slowing down now. The more we do now, the more we will flatten that curve.”
Because of the threat of community spread, many businesses in Ketchikan and Fairbanks have been ordered to close. These include hairdressers, spas, barber shops, nail salons, tattoo shops, massage therapy locations and tanning facilities.
“The purpose of this mandate is to limit all close contacts,” Crum said. All meetings of more than 10 people in Fairbanks and Ketchikan have been banned. The mandate took effect Saturday.
Also on Friday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued an emergency order calling on Anchorage residents to remain in their homes and minimize social contact. The order took effect Sunday at 10 p.m. and will remain in effect until March 31. Anchorage has 13 cases as of Sunday.
In Ketchikan, which has seen six confirmed cases, the city and borough mayors, along with the mayor of the City of Saxman, issued a joint proclamation urging citizens of Ketchikan to “hunker down, shelter in place and stay home.”
Alaska businesses, including restaurants and bars, could face misdemeanor charges if they violate one of the health mandates issued by the state.
“At this point in time we’re really looking to Alaskans to step up, to take it seriously, to avoid ever getting to that situation,” Crum said.
Dunleavy said that if community outbreaks occur, the state may order a shelter-in-place, which would prohibit all non-essential travel outside of individuals’ homes. Such orders have already been implemented in numerous states contending with larger outbreaks, including California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois.
“We’re trying to keep ahead of this virus, keep ahead of the infections. At the same time, we are trying to keep some normalcy of life here in Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “Nothing’s off the table.”