ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services issued a strong advisory against non-essential air travel Friday afternoon due to COVID-19 concerns.
“These are measures to protect Alaskans. We appreciate the public’s understanding of this mandate in an effort to mitigate this virus,” said Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum.
Crum delivered the newest health alert recommending that Alaskans cancel out-of-state personal, business and medical travel and also cease any long-distance travel within the state, especially to rural communities with limited healthcare resources. The state also suggests that Alaskans outside of the state make plans to return immediately if they are scheduled to return in the next 30 days. In a separate update, the Alaska Department of Transportation announced that Alaska airports will remain open, but precautions are being taken. Crum said that health mandate seven takes effect on March 21 at 8:00 a.m. in Fairbanks and Ketchikan.
“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 make sure that we have this proper social distancing,” said Crum.
A total of 698 people have been tested in Alaska, with three new cases coming to light on Thursday and another pair testing positive on Friday.
“These two communities are the communities we’re most concerned about at this time given those contacts and the two communities who we are watching the most closely. That brings us to a total of 14 cases we continue to try to expand lab testing,” said Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink.
Zink and Crum were joined by Gov. Dunleavy in announcing the two additional people who tested positive for COVID 19 on at a press conference on Friday as well as the two additional health mandates. The first health mandate on Friday, the seventh since the coronavirus outbreak called for the cancelation of all nonessential out of state and instate travel. The second health mandate closed schools until May 1.
Zink announced two new cases, one in Fairbanks and another in Ketchikan. The Ketchikan case is a middle-aged individual and is travel related. The new Fairbanks case is still under investigation, Zink said.
“Really right now this is a call to action to all Alaskans. I can’t underestimate and I can’t overstate the importance of slowing down now. The more that we do now, the more we flatten that curve and it’s just, it’s critical and again I really think we think in linear terms and this virus moves in an exponential term,” said Zink.
Fairbanks has the most positive tests in the state with six. There are also four in Anchorage, three in Ketchikan and one in Seward, as of Friday night. Zink continued to recommend social distancing, and staying at home whenever possible. The state also suggests that Alaskans outside of the state to make plans to return immediately if they are scheduled to return in the next 30 days.
“We appreciate the governor’s leadership on an extended school closure. It brings certainty and clarity to our work as we launch a remote delivery of instruction model,” Mat-Su Borough School District Dr. Monica Goyette said in a statement Friday. “The School Board is increasing to weekly meetings to be able to quickly respond to the needs of the staff and students. The first priority next week will be graduation requirements. These meetings are live streamed and we will be adding remote public testimony capabilities.”
Zink said that health care inventory supply lines are not expected to get a boost anytime soon and that healthcare providers not currently operating with extra supplies of swabs and other professionals that may use masks contact local health care providers to help supply the personal protective equipment of health care workers screening patients for COVID 19. As part of the travel restrictions, Zink said that Alaskans should work from home unless part of critical infrastructure, and those working in critical infrastructure are expected to be equipped with proper protective equipment.
“We’re hoping that the social distancing that we’ve employed and we’ll continue to employ will help diffuse this spread, slow it down so that we can get our health system up and running and be able to deal with this here over the next month,” said Dunleavy.
When questioned about the possibility of travel restrictions being mandated, Dunelavy said that the triggering factor would be community to community spread. All of the 14 cases reported in Alaska thus far have been a result of travel, which is why Dunleavy is hesitant to place additional restrictions on the economy.
“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 for the people of Alaska if that occurs,” said Dunleavy.
Zink said that the two cases discovered Thursday night in Fairbanks were not yet determined to be either community transmitted or travel cases and investigation is ongoing. The new case in Ketchikan was attributed to travel outside of Alaska.
“It’s because of this reason and the difficulty trying to figure out their exact history and where they went in their connection that we’re being more concerned about the Fairbanks area and we’re issuing these mandates,” said Zink. “We expect travelers who leave communities with known COVID cases to self isolate upon arrival to their destination and monitor. So if you’re moving into an area that has non COVID cases you could easily pick up that disease and take it back to your community and that’s where we’re really asking even interstate to remove that travel.”