Editor’s note: As a public service to keep people informed on the COVID-19 pandemic, the paywall for the News section of the Homer News website has been disabled. Consider subscribing to the Homer News to support our continued work to bring important updates to the public. You can do so here.
Update, March 22: This story includes a new case announced at 12:30 p.m. Sunday that brings the statewide total of positive confirmed COVID-19 cases to 22.
The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has reached the central Kenai Peninsula.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Manager Dan Nelson and Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg announced in a Facebook live video Saturday evening that two cases have been confirmed — one in Sterling and one in Soldotna.
The two central peninsula cases are part of a total of seven new cases announced in the state Saturday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The department announced in a Saturday evening press release that, in addition to the cases in Sterling and Soldotna, there is one new case in Anchorage, one new case in Fairbanks and three new cases in Ketchikan.
On Sunday for its daily 12:30 p.m. update on the DHSS COVID-19 website, DHSS added one more confirmed positive case, a sixth case in Anchorage. All the Anchorage cases have been travel related.
This brings the total number of cases in Alaska to 22. State officials had announced two cases during a Friday press conference — one in Fairbanks and one in Ketchikan.
The first positive case on the peninsula was reported in Seward by the state’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink at a press conference on March 18.
There are now seven cases in Fairbanks, six cases in Ketchikan, six in Anchorage, and one case each in Seward, Soldotna and Sterling.
“The Soldotna and the Anchorage cases were both travel-related with travel to the Lower 48,” the press release states. “All of the other cases were non-travel related and are currently being investigated. All cases were in adults; none were hospitalized.”
Of the two cases announced by state officials on Friday, the person who tested positive in Ketchikan is middle aged, while the new Fairbanks case is still under investigation, Zink said in the Friday press conference.
The Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center had previously announced the city’s third case earlier on Friday and identified the person as an employee of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office has also issued two new mandates, one of which aims specifically to help curb the spread of the virus in the areas with the highest case numbers: Fairbanks and Ketchikan.
One mandate bans the operation of services like nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors and tanning facilities, or businesses where people would be within 6 feet of one another, within the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The mandate does not apply to urgent or emergency health care needs, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said in a press conference Friday.
Additionally, no gatherings of 10 people are more will be allowed in those two boroughs, and a gathering that does take place must keep people at least 6 feet apart.
The mandate went into effect at 8 a.m. Saturday.
The second mandate announced Friday keeps all public and private Alaska schools closed through May 1.
“Students will receive instruction through distance delivery methods,” the mandate reads. “All after school activities will be suspended during this time.”
Asked what methods the state has for enforcing mandates such as these and the one that closed all eating and drinking establishments in the state to dine-in service earlier this week, Crum said the state will rely on enforcement from the boards that oversee Alaska’s licensed businesses.
“Along with this, a lot of the businesses in Alaska that operate have to be licensed, and there’s certain boards that actually adhere to them (the mandates),” Crum said at the press conference. “And state agencies and departments that actually enforce for them. … So like restaurants would be Department of Environmental Conservation.”
If businesses fail to comply with state mandates aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, they could be “red tagged” by the agencies that oversee them, Crum said.
“It could actually work its way up towards misdemeanor status,” he said. “But that is a ways down the road. At this point in time we’re really looking for Alaskans to step up, to take this seriously, to avoid ever getting to that situation, to take care of each other, and just make sure that we have this proper social distancing. We’ve seen a lot of examples across the state of restaurants or bars … stepping up, actually altering their business model and still finding a way to keep their doors open and provide service.”
Speaking about the two new cases identified in Ketchikan and Fairbanks, Zink said that while the new Fairbanks case is still being investigated, the new Ketchikan case is a travel-related case.
“These two communities are the communities we’re most concerned about at this time, given those contacts, and the two communities we’re watching the most closely,” Zink said.
Zink said that Alaska is trying to expand its capabilities to test for the virus in the wake of a national shortage of the swabs used to conduct the test. However, she noted that communities within Alaska can opt to send their tests Outside or to private test companies.
“Our limitation continues to be around the swab itself,” Zink said. “… There was a great (announcement) that went out from Anchorage that if anyone has those swabs in their clinics, dentist office … getting those to your local health care provider will help us to be able to get samples to the right place, swabs to the right place, so that people can collect samples and then we can move from there.”
Also announced Friday were two new health alerts. These are not mandates, but are strong advisories for people in Alaska. The two newest alerts urge Alaskans to cease non-essential travel both outside of Alaska and within the state.
Health Alert 9.1 strongly advises that that state residents cease personal, business and medical travel now if it is not essential. It also urges people visiting Alaska to return to their hometowns immediately, and tour operators in the state to suspend any reservations for out of state visitors.
Health Alert 9.2 urges Alaskans to cease any non-essential in-state travel, especially to areas of the state with limited medical resources, such as remote villages.
“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,” the health alert reads.
These health advisories do not apply to medical, personal or business emergencies.
“I can’t overestimate, and I can’t overstate the importance of slowing down now,” Zink said at the press conference. “The more we do now, the more we flatten that curve.”
Asked when these health advisories urging limited travel could become state mandates, Dunleavy said a trigger for the state when it comes to determining mandates is community-to-community spread.
“The moment we see that happening, again, these tools that are on the table … many of them will be implemented to slow it (COVID-19) down even further,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure that we don’t shut the entire state down, because we believe that’s also going to have some serious, serious impacts and ramifications to the people of Alaska if that occurs. At the same time, health will come first. We feel right now that we are employing the right tools at the moment, but it changes moment by moment, so we’ll make that decision especially when there’s community (to) community spread.”
In Anchorage, movement will soon be even more restricted. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued an emergency “hunker down” order on Friday that will take effect at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 31 for Anchorage residents, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The order is mainly focused on social interaction and the closure of non-essential businesses.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian Mazurek contributed reporting from the central Kenai Peninsula. Reach him at email@example.com.