As number of COVID-19 cases grows, state officials warn of a limited healthcare system

Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, briefs reporters on the coronavirus at a news conference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)


After this story published, a spokesperson from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office said a planned press conference scheduled for Friday has been postponed. They have not yet announced what time they’ll hold the conference.

As coronavirus continues to spread in the state, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state medical officials doubled down Thursday on the message that Alaskans need to socially isolate themselves, because the state does not have the medical infrastructure to handle a severe outbreak of coronavirus. 

The State’s Chief Medical Officer, Anne Zink, said the state is working to scale up its ability to respond to the virus. But, she said, it’s not going to be enough if Alaskans don’t work to slow the rate of infection. 

“All of the modeling and all of the predictions show that the current infrastructure in Alaska alone is not going to be enough to handle this disease,” she said.

Zink said frontline medical workers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and, because medical supply chains have been disrupted globally, medical personnel are having to ration safety equipment like masks and gowns. 

“Literally every day that we can buy to get more [protective equipment] for the front lines, to get more ventilators, to get more alternative care sites set up — helps us to be able to help you when we see this disease really take hold in Alaska,” she said.

This coronavirus primarily affects the lungs and, in severe cases, patients have to be hooked up to ventilators to survive. Other states that currently have major outbreaks are reporting severe shortages, which means medical providers have to decide who gets them and who doesn’t. 

For days, reporters have been asking how many ventilators the state currently has — and Zink has said repeatedly that it’s tricky to pin down. 

One of the reasons, she said, is that individual hospitals are supposed to self-report that number to the state. 

“We ask them to report that data to us. There are limitations in that reporting, it’s not mandatory,” she said. “So we’re working with them to get that information.”

Between hospitals, surgical centers and private practices, Zink estimated that there are about 200 ventilators in the state. But, that’s not representative of how many adults could be treated at one time. Some of the ventilators are built for children or specially built for travel and would need to be repurposed, she said.

For about three weeks, Zink, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have held regular updates on the state’s strategy and rationale — including several public health mandates that have changed daily life across Alaska. 

But they did not issue a statewide shelter-in-place order on Thursday, though many Alaskan communities have already imposed versions of them. And there have been calls from doctors and local leaders — to do so. 

Dunleavy said there will be another update on the state response to the virus on Friday.  At that point, he said, the state will “have a discussion about travel within Alaska.” 

He said they’ll also talk about the economic impact of the virus. Though, that discussion will be ongoing, Dunleavy said, as details of the state legislature’s stimulus plans and the federal government’s stimulus package emerge.  

This story has been updated.

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