ANCHORAGE — Gov. Dunleavy hosted a panel of experts to answer questions from press on the response to COVID 19 as he has done over the last two weeks with Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum.
Dunleavy was also joined by tribal health representatives and via teleconference by Anchorage resident Dr. Jay Butler, who now serves as the Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta after a stint as Alaska’s CMO.
“One of the things that's really heartening about this whole response is seeing examples like this where state, tribal, federal people come together as well as people from the private sector to begin to put the brain trust together to talk about how do we solve this issue,” said Dr. Butler. “The outcome of this in many ways is in our hands, so be sure and wash those hands for at least 20 seconds.”
Dr. Zink began the press conference by notifying the state that 17 new cases had been discovered, bringing Alaska’s total up to 59 cases with two patients in critical care. The 17 new cases on Wednesday saw the first cases in Homer and North Pole, another in Fairbanks and three more in Ketchikan as well as 11 reported in Anchorage. Of the 17 new cases, five people who tested positive for COVID 19 were patients over the age of 60. Zink said that 13 cases are still under investigation but three people were determined to have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID 19 and another was travel related.
“There is much that we have to learn still and it’s very humbling to recognize how something like this can emerge and become such a challenge in terms of how it can change the world so much so very quickly,” said Butler. “I think it became apparent fairly early on that it was going to be very difficult to contain the virus and completely eliminate it.”
Members of the press repeatedly asked how many ventilators are currently in the state of Alaska with no clear answer. Dunleavy did say that he would likely extend the closure of dine-in service at restaurants and bars past his April 1 deadline. Reporters also asked what the threshold for continuing case investigations was as the number of cases continues to rise. Both Butler and Zink mentioned the transition from attempts to contain the virus into efforts to mitigate the spread that has already begun.
“As we moved into later February and we saw spread of the infection in Europe and an increased number of cases in the Americas, we began a phase transitions to mitigation which is part of what has been scoped out in a lot of the pre-pandemic planning that was focused on influenza pandemic,” said Butler.
Butler called mitigation strategies an ongoing analytic process between costs and benefits. Butler said that the global pandemic caused by the outbreak of COVID 19 had spread to 195 countries with over 370,000 cases worldwide and over 16,000 deaths. In the United States, roughly 55,000 people have tested positive for COVID 19 and over 700 have died. Butler lauded the planning work done in the event of an influenza outbreak as what has been much of the basis for mitigating the spread of coronavirus.
“Related to travel on aircraft, I think it’s important to recognize that’s an important question during the containment phase but we really are beyond that now and there is transmission in the community so the public health resources really need to be focused elsewhere,” said Butler.
Butler said that the new vocabulary brought into the daily lexicon such as social distancing, self isolation, self quarantine and flattening the curve are part of one the non pharmaceutical strategy to treat COVID 19. The pharmaceutical strategy does not currently exist and may be up to 18 months away. Butler repeated the hand washing and social distancing methods aimed at slowing the rate of transmission of coronavirus.
“We’re trying to push that number down with all of these measures but you can see there’s kind of this exponential climb in the U.S. as a whole, really, on this acceleration phase. We’re just seeing a huge increase in cases day by day,” said Zink. “We have community transmission in the state of Alaska right now. We need to be doing all these things.”
Zink said that there had not been any positive tests yet returned from Alaska Department of Corrections Inmates but that DOC staff were working diligently to prepare for the possibility of a positive test coming out of one of the state’s prison facilities. In an effort to help stand up the state’s health care infrastructure and inventory of swabs, masks, and personal protective equipment, Dunleavy said that Palmer business Trijet is working to make swabs and PPE. Dunleavy alluded to his ability to pull levers to mandate citizens to shelter in place and said that he would await the instruction of his team to do so.
“We are Alaskans. We pride ourselves in being free and independent and making those decisions,” said Zink. “But this virus is not going to be stopped by any one of us. It’s going to be stopped by all of us working together.”