How well does hunkering down work? Time will tell.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

Alaska’s chief medical officer and an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say more data is coming that will inform policymakers’ public health mandates as they continue to make decisions about keeping Alaskans safe.

They spoke during a news conference Wednesday night in Anchorage organized by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, as the number of known COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb in the state.

Dr. Jay Butler is the deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, and formerly Alaska’s chief medical officer. Butler said it’s unclear how long shelter-in-place orders will be recommended or mandated. But in another week or so, he said, the CDC may have the data to gauge how effective hunkering down is at curbing new cases. 

In Alaska, Dunleavy had not ordered Alaskans to shelter in place by Wednesday, though many local leaders have imposed versions of the mandate for their communities.

Catch up on the latest coverage of coronavirus in Alaska

“In terms of what’s happening in the United States, we’re probably only about a week into — in some parts of the country — doing that kind of hunkering down,” Butler said, calling into the news conference from Atlanta. “The cases that are being diagnosed now were most likely acquired seven to 10 days ago. So we’re only at the point where we might begin to see some impact from the steps that had been taken.”

He said the CDC is monitoring the COVID-19 case numbers and impact very closely in places like New York City, where more than 3,900 coronavirus patients have been hospitalized. He called it “an ongoing analytic process” that will inform the CDC’s guidance. That puts policymakers in Alaska, where the outbreak is several days younger than other hot spots in the country, in a better position to flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming the health care system.

Related: Alaska leaders have taken drastic measures to slow the coronavirus. The ‘$1 million question’ is whether they’re enough.

How those cases get identified — testing — has been a major bottleneck in the COVID-19 response globally. 

At the national level, Butler said, a lot of the work that’s being done to open that bottleneck is in the private sector. He said he couldn’t offer a timeline for when that would change, but said companies are working hard at it. 

In Alaska, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said testing capabilities are improving, including a one-day spike of more than 600 tests on Tuesday. 

”We’re seeing sort of an exponential climb in the testing, which we like to see,” Zink said. “We are working through those bottlenecks here.”

Read the latest coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska.

She said a lack of swabs used in testing had been a major limitation for Alaska. They’re now being produced in state, and the state received a shipment of 4,000 on Wednesday. 

Asked when he would mandate that Alaskans stay at home, Dunleavy said when the state’s medical team says, “that is a trigger we absolutely have to pull.”

Related: Number of coronavirus cases in Alaska jumps to 59

Zink said her recommendations have to do with how Alaskans act.

“So when people stop moving, and they respect that? We don’t have to mandate it,” she said.“But when people continue to do it, we have to mandate it. So we are trying really hard to explain the purpose and the reasoning of this. We are Alaskans, we pride ourselves on being free and independent and making those decisions. But this virus isn’t going to be stopped by any one of us. It’s going to be stopped by all of us working together.”

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

Previous articleBehind bars, Alaska inmates and corrections staff brace for virus
Next articleAlaska Supreme Court challenges lawyers on both sides in Dunleavy recall arguments