Federal delegates talk aid, equipment for Alaska amid coronavirus spread

Alaska’s total COVID-19 case count rose to 119 on Monday

Editor’s note: As a public service to keep people informed on the COVID-19 pandemic, the paywall for all articles about the coronavirus has been disabled. If you are able, consider subscribing to the Homer News to support our continued work to bring important updates to the public. You can do so here.

Alaska’s congressional delegation touted federal aid packages that will bring help to the state’s economy, families and the health care sector as the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced on Monday a slight increase in cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

DHSS announced five new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the state total to 119. There are no new deaths and no new hospitalizations, with seven people hospitalized in Alaska for the disease.

Two of the new cases are in Anchorage, two are in Fairbanks and one of the new cases is in Palmer. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a Monday press conference that of the five new cases, four are female and one is male. All cases involve people between the ages of 30 and 59.

According to DHSS, the number of cases in each Alaska community affected so far are 55 cases in Anchorage (which includes Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson), 22 in Fairbanks, 13 in Ketchikan, eight in North Pole, five in Eagle River/Chugiak, five in Juneau, three in Palmer, two each in Sterling and Soldotna, and one each in Girdwood and Seward. There is one confirmed case in Homer and one confirmed case of a Homer resident who was tested and isolated in Anchorage.

One of the cases on the central Kenai Peninsula is a person who was tested at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai last week and was confirmed positive for COVID-19, according to a March 29 Facebook Post from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

In the post, the tribe said that the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory notified the Dena’ina Wellness Center of the positive case on Saturday, March 28.

“The Kenaitze Tribal Council and Tribal Administration wish to assure its Tribal Members, Employees and our community that the guidance and mandates of Federal, Tribal, State and public safety agencies are being followed to ensure your health and safety,” the post states. “Adherence to these mandates by everyone is a must as we work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

The only new central peninsula case announced by the state on Saturday, March 28, was in Soldotna. Scott Moon, Communications Director for the Kenaitze, said he could not confirm whether the person tested at the Dena’ina Wellness Center and the Soldotna resident were the same person. Center for Disease Control rules dictate that COVID-19 cases be recorded according to residency, not the location where a person tests positive.

Altogether, 38 of Alaska’s COVID-19 cases are travel related, while the majority, 43, come from close contact with a person already infected. Eleven cases are non-travel related and 27 are still being investigated.

As of Monday, 3,713 Alaskans have been tested for the disease, with 2,002 tests being processed through the Alaska State Public Health Laboratories and 1,711 processed by commercial labs, according to DHSS.

Also joining Monday’s press conference were Sen. Lisa Murskowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, to speak about the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, and what its provisions can mean for Alaskans.

Much of the discussion centered on what kind of aid the state can expect from the federal government through the CARES Act. The health care sector is struggling nationally and globally with a shortage of equipment, supplies and protective gear.

Zink announced in the press conference that Alaska just received 60 ventilators from the federal government. Those will be added to the roughly 200 ventilators that Zink told the Anchorage Daily News the state already has. That estimate of 200 includes ventilators that can only be used on children, as well as those designated for travel.

“It’s important to remember that a ventilator can have a lot of different looks and a lot of different ability,” Zink said during Monday’s press conference. “Particularly with the inflammation that can happen in the lungs secondary to COVID, having the very sensitive ventilators can be really, really important, and so we really appreciate the industry’s work in the Lower 48, and the federal delegation’s work, and the federal government’s to get those.”

Zink said it’s estimated that the state of Alaska could need between 48 and more than 1,000 additional ventilators. She said that an additional 48 ventilators is within Alaska’s capacity right now.

“And there’s a huge range based on kind of which statistics you look at,” Zink said. “And that’s why we’re doing all this social distancing, why we’re trying to do this mitigation as we build up capacity.”

The new ventilators are currently being tested. When that’s done, Zink said the state will decide where to send them.

While individuals in Alaska and in-state manufacturing companies are stepping up to fill some of this gap themselves, Murkowski and Sullivan noted that $150 billion is set aside in the CARES Act for the community hospitals and health centers.

“There’s several billion in that … part of the CARES Act that is focused on rebuilding the national stockpile of critical equipment like ventilators,” Sullivan said.

Asked by a reporter about Alaska’s ability to capitalize on rapid testing kits for COVID-19, Zink said the state has been working with the federal delegation to get “as much testing as we possibly can in the state of Alaska.”

Zink said rapid testing will be an important tool for virus detection in rural communities and rural industries, like some remote seafood processors.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a rapid testing kit by the company Abbott.

“We are assessing where that exists right now and working with the federal delegation to get a minimum of those up here so we can get those out to rural areas as quickly as possible,” Zink said.

Zink also warned the Alaska public to be cautious of rapid testing kits being offered that have not been approved by the FDA.

“And we’re seeing communities spend a lot of money on tests that we don’t know if they’re useful or if they’re good, and they haven’t been approved,” she said.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com. Brian Mazurek contributed reporting from the central peninsula. Reach him at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.