It’s just a matter of time before Alaska confirms a case of coronavirus, state epidemiologist Joseph McLaughlin said Tuesday, speaking on Alaska Public Media’s “Talk of Alaska.”
McLaughlin said measures we take now can slow the spread of an eventual Alaska outbreak. McLaughlin said the strategy is to help hospitals keep up with the demand from the sickest patients for ventilators and other life-saving care.
“In the face of an epidemic like this, we really want people to be vigilant about staying home and self-isolating if they’re sick, even if they have just flu or cold, whatever,” he said.
Alaska still has no confirmed cases. The state reported that 47 people had been tested by Tuesday afternoon. Sixteen of the tests were pending; the rest were negative.
In Washington state, officials confirmed 267 cases of the coronavirus, including 24 deaths, most of them in the Seattle area.
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that the state had automated the testing process to make it faster, and that two commercial labs are now able to test.
“The test is not a cure,” she said. “Nor is the test preventative.”
The state will begin holding daily press conferences and sending health alerts, advisories and mandates, she said.
“The data that we see, every year of life, people are more and more at risk,” she said.
Zink recommended that people over 60 stay at home as much as possible, avoid crowds, stay at least six feet away from people who are sick and telecommute to work if possible. She also discouraged gatherings of people in that age group.
The state and the Legislature announced travel restrictions for employees, and the state also froze hiring late Monday. Tuesday, the Legislature began making plans to end the session early if there was an active case in Juneau.
China’s experience with the coronavirus suggests most Alaskans will have only mild or moderate symptoms if they become infected, McLaughlin said. He also said people over 60 are at risk for more serious illness, even if they are fit and active.
The state now has enough kits to test about 800 patients. McLaughlin acknowledges that’s inadequate.
“Every state is struggling with the fact that we have limited testing supplies. The good news, however, is that our testing supplies are increasing, you know, almost daily,” he said.
As an epidemiologist, McLaughlin wants more testing and more surveillance. But he said not every ill person needs to be tested. He recommends consulting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, CDC.gov, to see the risk criteria.
“If you meet any of those high-risk categories, what we want you to do is contact your health care provider. And it’s really important for folks to call in ahead of time and not just go to the emergency room, not just go to an urgent care or your clinic, because if in fact you do have COVID-19, we don’t want you to be in a waiting room potentially infecting other people,” he said.
High-risk groups include older adults, even those that are fit and active, and those with chronic illnesses.
Alaska’s Energy Desk editor Julia O’Malley contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.