When Anchorage doctor Julie Robinson dropped her 11-year-old daughter at the airport for a class trip to Washington D.C. last week, she made sure the group boarded the plane with a few extra items.
“I met the group at the airport with a bag of wet wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer,” Robinson said.
Robinson felt good about letting her daughter travel across the country. For her, it wasn’t a tough call. But at Arete Family Medicine in Anchorage, where she’s a family practice physician, many of her patients are anxiously grappling with similar decisions.
“Especially with spring break next week, we’re just getting a lot of questions about travel,” Robinson said.
There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alaska. The state is testing more patients every day and medical experts say the virus is likely to be discovered in the state soon. At local clinics and hospitals, doctors are fielding lots of questions. Many say they’re counseling patients to take COVID-19 seriously, but not to panic.
When addressing travel questions, Robinson tells each patient to think about their own health. Do they have chronic respiratory issues or another underlying health problem that could make them more susceptible to coronavirus, and more likely to contract severe symptoms if they do get the disease?
“And then also, do they have anxiety? A lot of patients who have underlying anxiety are really struggling with this decision about travel. And so if they’re otherwise a low-risk traveler, but they feel really anxious about it, that’s maybe a reason to stay home.”
For younger and healthy individuals, Robinson isn’t much more worried about coronavirus than she is about influenza, a more familiar virus that can be deadly for people in fragile health. She acknowledges there are a lot of unknowns. And she suspects Alaska cases will be confirmed soon, but tells her patients to be pragmatic. Michelle Laufer, a pediatrician at Medical Park Pediatrics in Anchorage, gives similar advice.
“I don’t think we should walk around necessarily being worried,” she said. “For the most part we just need to be conscious about preventing illness and then caring for ourselves if we become ill.”
Laufer said the hardest part for most patients is that there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. She said reliable data is limited.
“We know that it’s a virus, we know that it’s relatively transmissible and that it can cause severe illness and even death. But the numbers around that and risk of that — it’s just unclear at this point,” she said.
Laufer said she expects the virus is already in Alaska, but hasn’t yet been detected. Her biggest frustration is that the state doesn’t have more capacity to test. The state has capacity to conduct fewer than 200 tests and doesn’t know when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will ship more. Laufer expects private labs will be able to test for coronavirus soon, but said it’s unclear if insurance will cover the cost.
At Providence Hospital this week, the state approved testing for two intensive care patients who didn’t have a travel history, according to regional chief medical officer Michael Bernstein. He said both tests came back negative. Bernstein describes the level of worry in Anchorage over coronavirus as moderate, which he said is appropriate.
“My sense within our community, honestly, is that the sense of concern is probably about where it needs to be,” he said. “It’s enough to get us to do a lot of preparation.”
Bernstein said the Providence Health System has canceled all travel meetings for at least the next month to ensure there are enough workers to address coronavirus.
Bernstein asks people wash their hands, refrain from touching their face and to get a flu vaccine if they haven’t already. Julie Robinson, the family practice doctor, adds that Alaskans should eat healthy and exercise. She said people also tend to underestimate the importance of getting a good night of sleep for warding off any illness.
Other than that, she said, it’s a waiting game.
“I think people need to take a big breath and try to relax and we’ll see what happens,” she said.