The state has tested 4 people for coronavirus, 2 tests are pending, testing approach is “phased,” medical officer says

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink gives a status report on the novel coronavirus to legislators at the Terry Miller Building in Juneau on March 4, 2020. Zink was accompanied by Commissioner of Health and Social Services Adam Crum. They spoke on behalf of the Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

The state officials leading preparations for the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Alaska told lawmakers on Wednesday in Juneau to keep calm and stay informed about developments related to the virus.

The state has so far tested four people for COVID-19. None tested positive. Testing for two others is in progress.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said it’s important to take simple steps, like washing your hands and staying at home if you’re sick. This will reduce the risk of other diseases, too, like the flu. And that will help the health care system handle COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, when it arrives in the state as anticipated, she said.

“So when I’m thinking about the health care system as a whole, I don’t want to fight a battle on two or three fronts,” she said.

The state can currently test up to 100 people. Zink expects the federal government to provide more test kits. But the state hasn’t been given a timeframe for receiving them. People will first be tested for the flu and other viruses before being checked for COVID-19. 

“This is a phased and layered approach, and using the test for the right people is going to make sure that the most people are protected,” Zink said. “We’re not trying to limit the number of tests. We’re trying to get them out as quickly as possible.”

Related: The risk of coronavirus remains low in Alaska, but empty Anchorage store shelves reveal rising anxiety

Zink walked through basic facts that are known about the virus. It appears to be 10 to 20 times more fatal than the typical flu. Children are not showing symptoms of the disease, but seniors seem particularly susceptible. Symptoms start two to five days after people contract the virus, peak between five and seven days and linger for up to 14 days.

Zink said people with flu-like symptoms should first seek help from a health care provider. That could mean a visit to a doctor, but it also could mean using a phone service like Teledoc. But she cautioned against people going to a hospital emergency department.

She said a fever might require a call to a doctor. But it can be difficult to know whether to take a cough seriously.

“It is hard,” she said. “Is that a little dry air? Is that a little allergy? I got a little cough — I think everyone’s watching each other’s coughs and sneezes a little more intensely right now because we’re all a little — I’m not picking on anyone here.”

Zink said the state is preparing for the virus, anticipating how it would impact both urban and rural communities. For port communities, that means trying to connect officials with cruise lines’ medical professionals. She said the state also has transportation plans for rural communities — for individuals and larger groups of patients.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at

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