COVID-19

The first local restrictions as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) were taken by the Delta Greely School District yesterday. Superintendent Shaun Streyle, in a letter that was sent out to parents today by email, says the district is limiting the travel of students outside the district in response to a decision to postpone extracurricular activities at the state level.

Streyle wrote, “We will be limiting travel for our students outside of the district as well. The schools will be following up with students and their parents on the specific trips that will be canceled. As of now, we will continue to hold and have all scheduled events within the district.”

It was reported the high school basketball team was on the way to North Pole for the regional tournament at the time of the announcement and returned to Delta Junction.

Other school districts in the state have taken similar steps, and some districts have cancelled classes for next week, including the Anchorage School District, the state’s largest.

Streyle said the Delta Greely School District has no plans currently to close schools. With spring break scheduled for next week, the district has time to consider options before making such a decision.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Alaska was announced Thursday afternoon as well. A foreign national who arrived in Anchorage on March 11 tested positive for the disease after developing a fever and respiratory symptoms, says the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). The department said in a release the case is a “travel-associated case” and is “not a case of community-acquired infection.”

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities confirmed Thursday night that the patient was associated with a cargo flight and that crew members on cargo flights do not enter the main terminal and crew members do not come into contact with general passengers.

Crew members do stay in local hotels and are transported by vans contracted by the air carrier to move crew members from the airport to hotels. No information was provided on the hotel the crew member was staying in.

DHSS says the patient is at Alaska Regional Hospital where they were tested, and they are coordinating closely with the facility. They also said strict infection control protocols were followed.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said, “We understand this news will be concerning to Alaskans, but we have expected Alaska would get the first case of COVID-19 and we have been diligently preparing for this possibility.”

More cases are expected said Governor Mike Dunleavy in a press release.

“We do have our first case identified of the COVID-19 virus, which is not unusual given what’s been happening elsewhere with this pandemic. This is no surprise as this is something we in Alaska have been preparing for since January. We feel good about the protocols we have in place and will continue to work our protocols,” said Dunleavy.

DHSS says its epidemiology section is attempting to identify people who may have had close contact with the individual, and those that have been exposed and are at risk will undergo self-quarantine for 14 days.

The typical incubation period – time from infection to symptom onset – for COVID-19 is 2-14 days.

Economic impact on the state is also expected to expand. On Wednesday, Viking Cruises and Princess Cruises both announced that they are suspending sailings of four of the first cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Alaska.

Unlike the flu, which is what many have compared the COVID-19 virus to, COVID-19 seems to have the greatest effect only on those over 60 and those who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease. Health officials also say the COVID-19 virus is only a respiratory virus and does not have other symptoms found in flu cases.

The number of cases involving children is very low, but the concern is that children may carry the virus, and increased public exposure at events may result in the virus being spread and brought home to those that are more likely to develop serious problems from the virus such as grandparents and those that have chronic health issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest avoiding close contact with people who are sick and to take these steps to protect yourself from the virus:

  • Clean your hands often.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, or having been in a public place.
  • If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • To the extent possible, avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places – elevator buttons, door handles, handrails, handshaking with people, etc. Use a tissue or your sleeve to cover your hand or finger if you must touch something.
  • Wash your hands after touching surfaces in public places.
  • Avoid touching your face, nose, eyes, etc.
  • Clean and disinfect your home to remove germs: practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks & cell phones.
  • Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick.
  • Avoid all non-essential travel including plane trips, and especially avoid embarking on cruise ships.

There have been several local meetings and information prepared by local agencies about the virus and protocols are being put in place to limit spread of the disease. Local medical and fire responders participated in training Thursday evening on how to handle possible exposure to the virus.

The CDC advises if you get sick to:

  • Stay home and call your doctor.
  • Call your healthcare provider and let them know about your symptoms. Tell them that you have or may have COVID-19. This will help them take care of you and keep other people from getting infected or exposed.
  • If you are not sick enough to be hospitalized, you can recover at home. Follow CDC instructions for how to take care of yourself at home.
  • Know when to get emergency help.
  • Get medical attention immediately if you have any of the emergency warning signs listed above.

Local doctor offices advise you to call before going to the facility if you feel you have the symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. They will make arrangements to isolate you from other patients before you enter the facility.

Family Medical Center can be reached at 895-5100 and Interior Alaska Medical Clinic at 895-6233. Fort Greely has made additional information available for active duty personnel, family members, retirees, contractors, and civilian personnel.

If you feel you are seriously ill, call the 911 emergency number. Dispatchers are prepared to handle COVID-19 calls as well and may ask questions concerning your condition and the virus.

Agencies also advise that you should be prepared for a possible long-term restriction in activities if the virus continues to spread. If you have not already done so, you should begin to stock up on items you may need if confined to your home.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has enlisted Alaska 2-1-1 as a resource for handling the large volume of calls from the public with questions. If you can’t reach 2-1-1, you may call (800) 478-2221. Additional information is also available on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/default.aspx and on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

An individual reported on a recent trip in Fairbanks that many stores have low or no stock of toilet paper or bottled water, both of which are items individuals should already have available as part of a home emergency preparedness kit. Similar reports have been seen nationally. There seems to be little explanation for the extra stockpiling of toilet paper, as the virus causes only respiratory issues.

Three local cases of self-quarantine have been reported, two involving Fort Greely. According to Lt. Col. Paul Tappen, commander of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, two individuals self-quarantined after traveling overseas.

Tappen said one was a family member that returned from overseas several weeks ago and was monitored, but showed no symptoms of the virus. The other was an employee associated with the Missile Defense Agency that was recently overseas and retuned to Fort Greely and was asked to self-quarantine. They have been monitored by health personnel and have exhibited no symptoms of the virus. Tappen added that they would reach then end of the 14-day self-quarantine period in the next few days.

Another case involved an employee at the Pogo mine who was recently overseas and returned to work at the mine. This person also exhibited no symptoms of the virus.

This article was updated to reflect that the letter was sent by email on March 13, not sent home to parents on March 12.

Michael Paschall is the editor and publisher of Delta Wind and can be reached at editor@deltawindonline.com.