With nine deaths in Washington State as of Tuesday from the novel coronavirus, called COVID-19, and 27 confirmed cases in the Seattle area, Alaska health officials are being watchful about the potential spread of the disease to the Last Frontier.
At the state and local levels, officials all have the same message: Be alert, be careful and be informed.
So far, Alaska has no confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four people suspected of possibly having COVID-19, called Persons Under Investigation or PUI, were identified, according to the latest report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) website for the coronavirus. Those cases have been closed
Those people all had traveled to Alaska from countries with high incidences of COVID-19, but were considered low risk with no signs or symptoms of the disease. As they returned to the United States, public health officials identified them for closer monitoring and alerted Alaska public health officials.
“That’s demonstrating how national, state and local public health is approaching this very aggressively,” said Lorne Carroll, an Alaska Public Health nurse and team leader for the department’s Homer office.
Those four people who were identified as potential risks agreed to self-isolate and be monitored for 14 days.
Carroll said Alaska Public Health is doing five things in response to the situation:
1) Monitoring the situation closely. “That’s no small task,” he said. “That’s everything from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Alaska Epidemiology.”
2) Educating the people. The WHO, CDC and DHSS all have ramped up their online and social media presence. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink held a community meeting Monday in Chugiak to brief people on the state response. Dunleavy also submitted a supplemental budget amendment to fund 10 more positions within DHSS for COVID-19 preparedness and response.
3) DHSS also has activated its Emergency Operations Center. In an email on Tuesday, South Peninsula Hospital Spokesperson Derotha Ferraro said Homer’s hospital will activate its Hospital Incident Command, or HICS, Center the moment the first COVID-19 case is detected. Hospitals also are updating counts of beds and medevac aircraft, she said.
4) Alaska Public Health also is working with local partners such as the Homer Volunteer Fire Department, the City of Homer, the hospital and others to pull out Emergency Operations Plans and update them. Ferraro said health officials will attend the Homer City Council meeting this Monday to update the council and city on the COVID-19 response.
5) Identify and watch patients possibly exposed to COVID-19.
“This is in our role with all other communicable diseases: rapid identification of anyone who might have coronavirus and isolating those folks, which means in-home isolation,” Carroll said.
Public health nurses would monitor such patients by phone, such as asking them to report their temperature and other symptoms.
Ferraro said the hospital issued a local health alert and instructions regarding COVID-19 on Tuesday. Anyone who has symptoms of respiratory infection (fever more than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing) or who has traveled from countries designated level 3 (China, Iran, South Korea and Italy) or level 2 (Japan) in the past 14 days should call SPH facilities before coming in. Those numbers are:
South Peninsula Hospital: 235-0235
Homer Medical Center: 235-8586
HMC West Wing: 435-3040
SPH Speciality Clinic: 235-0310
Carol Klamser, Family Practice: 235-0310
People with symptoms will be tested for flu and/or pneumonia, Ferraro said. If those are ruled out, they will be tested for COVID-19. One challenge is that Alaska does not have unlimited supplies of COVID-19 test kits, but by the end of next week private and hospital labs in the state should have kits and possibly a rapid screening test, she said.
With spring break coming up for schools and many Alaskans planning travel to Hawaii, the Lower 48 states, Mexico and other areas, people should be alert to the changing COVID-19 situation. Carroll suggested visiting the CDC travel information website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been working with its pandemic response team to develop the district’s Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, Superintendent John O’Brien said in a press release sent out Tuesday. That plan includes response, logistics and plans for education delivery in the event a peninsula school or community is affected by COVID-19
“The safety and well-being of our students, staff, families, and community is always central to our mission,” O’Brien is quoted as saying in the release.
The school district also has set up a website specific to its pandemic preparedness and response. That website at https://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/students_parents.aspx?id=41540 includes information on travel restrictions and links to other sites.
As precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as influenza, another current health risk, Zink made these suggestions in a Point of View opinion piece:
• Get a flu shot. “Getting an annual flu shot protects you, your family and relieves an undue burden on our medical system when we start to see COVID cases,” she wrote.
• Wash your hands. “Protect yourself and others by washing them for at least 20 seconds frequently throughout the day, and every time you eat, cough, sneeze, or use the restroom,” she wrote. “Handwashing (sic) is part of good self-care just like eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercising.”
• Don’t share your germs. “This coronavirus is spread like the flu from sneezing, coughing and close contact with others who are sick,” Zink wrote. “If you are sick, stay home and practice ‘social distancing,’ which means staying at least 6 feet away from others.”
• Stay informed and start planning.
For information on COVID-19 and general health preparation, visit these websites:
CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 website also has links to subscribe to health alerts by email.
Carroll wrote in an email that responding to new diseases such as COVID-19 offer several opportunities. The community learns how to get good information. They also put to use years of emergency planning and practice that makes health partners feel more confident in addressing a possible pandemic. The response also brings the community together.
“It gives folks an opportunity to meet each other,” Carroll wrote. “When folks know each other before they need help, then they’re able to build trust and learn each other’s strengths. That’s an individual, family and community resilience factor.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.