This is not the time to let your guard down, public health officials say.
The number of active COVID-19 cases in Alaska reached a new high this week since the state recorded its first infection in mid-March. Public health officials say they worry that some residents have developed fatigue about the contagious disease and are not social distancing or taking other precautions.
“If you look at the graph of cases, it looks a lot like it did in March,” said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “So that’s quite concerning.”
Following an initial spike in cases, the state and local governments put restrictions in place to slow the spread of the disease. And the number of new COVID-19 cases began dropping in April and stayed low for most of May, as businesses closed, many people shifted to working from home and school went online. Then, in late May, the number of cases in Alaska started to climb again.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy says the rising cases are no surprise with Alaska reopening and boosting its testing. He said the state is closely watching hospital capacity and the availability of medical supplies.
“The more we open up and mix, it’s just the way it is,” Dunleavy said on Wednesday. “So far, nothing unusual is occurring.”
Alaska is among more than a dozen states that, since the start of June, have recorded their highest seven-day average of new coronavirus cases, The Washington Post reported.
The increase in cases in Alaska is partly driven by several significant outbreaks: A long-term care facility in Anchorage, a seafood plant in Whittier, the Tustumena state ferry. Meanwhile, the Kenai Peninsula — marketed as Alaska’s playground — has become a new virus hotspot. And the disease continues to creep into remote Alaska communities, with the first cases recently recorded in Kotzebue, Wrangell, Haines and King Cove. The number of nonresidents testing positive in Alaska also continues to grow.
Related: As COVID-19 spikes in Alaska, Kenai Peninsula emerges as virus hotspot
Dr. Keri Gardner, chief medical officer at Alaska Regional Hospital, said the recent holiday weekend also likely contributed to the increase in cases. The timing matches up, she said. Most people who are going to show symptoms have developed them by about a week after exposure to the virus.
“We’re seeing an increase in a positive number of cases consistent with what you would expect after Memorial Day weekend,” Gardner said. “Which is a big gathering time.”
Still, Gardner said, she feels like “Alaska is one of the safest places to be right now.” That’s because Alaska continues to have one of the country’s lowest rates of cases per capita, she said.
Gardner said she’s also watching the percent of tests that are coming back positive and the number of hospital beds and ventilators in Alaska. The state reported Thursday that more than 800 hospital beds and 320 ventilators were available.
“The number of hospitalizations and deaths within the state are still really low, and that’s a great thing,” Gardner said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to become complacent, she said. She worries that some Alaskans have developed “coronavirus fatigue.”
“People are mingling more and probably being less strict with masking, social distancing and possibly even with sanitization,” she said. “We are not out of the woods.”
Related: Alaska health workers seek mask rule for crowded businesses
Natasha Pineda, director of the Anchorage Health Department, said there’s a worrisome shift in how Alaskans are becoming infected. Back in March, it was often because of travel. Now, it’s more often what epidemiologists call “community spread.”
“That means we can’t tie the acquisition of the case to travel or some specific location,” she said. “And that’s concerning because it means that the virus itself is present in the community and no one is going to know where it’s present because a lot of people may be asymptomatic carriers.”
While Pineda is also tracking hospital capacity, she calls it more of a “lagging indicator.”
“You’re not going to see stress on that system until we’re farther along down the line of increasing cases,” she said. “What I’m seeing as pressure on the system already is being able to interview all cases.”
Teams of “contact tracers” are tasked with finding the close contacts of people infected with COVID-19, and alerting them of their exposure. This week, the team in Anchorage couldn’t get to all of the new cases, and had to call in back-up from the state and the federal Arctic Investigations Program, Pineda said.
The Kenai Peninsula also needed help. In recent weeks, state health authorities have enlisted workers from other parts of Alaska to track and monitor the close contacts of sick people on the peninsula.
That could become a problem, Pineda said.
“That starts to be concerning if we exceed our capacity and then the state exceeds their capacity,” she said. “The strategy of using contact tracing, monitoring and investigation and testing to maintain control over virus spread in the community goes away. That would be problematic.”
Related: Site of Alaska’s largest COVID-19 outbreak begins third round of testing, as some patients grow worse
Pineda reiterated that Alaskans should keep their social circles small, keep their distance from others and wear masks in public, even without government-level restrictions. She said she worries about the disease becoming out of control if people don’t follow those recommendations.
“I’m absolutely concerned about exponential growth,” she said.
Hennessy, from UAA, said he’d like to see more messaging about the continued presence of COVID-19. When he worked in Africa during the Ebola outbreak, he said, warning signs about the disease were posted everywhere. They described the symptoms and who to call for medical care.
“And I’m not seeing that in Alaska. I’m not seeing that in Anchorage,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and people are dying and we run the risk of blowing up our health care system. And I just feel we need more urgency and messaging and people taking it more seriously.”
Hennessy said it would also help if more people wore masks, and if doing so was more normalized. More than 150 Alaska health care workers recently signed a letter to Dunleavy encouraging him to mandate the use of masks in businesses where 6-foot distancing isn’t realistic.
Dunleavy said Wednesday that he had no plans to require face coverings.
“I think we do best when we give Alaskans information, ask them to use their best judgement in the situations that we’re in and I think we’re going to get better outcomes there,” he said.
In March, he said, the state had to quickly implement restrictions to keep the virus at bay because of projections of hundreds of thousands of infections. The mandates kept the virus under control, he said, but also had a big impact on the economy.
Now, as the state learns more about COVID-19, it has changed its approach, Dunleavy said.
“We can’t run away from this forever. It’s here. It’s on this planet. It’s circling the globe,” he said.
Dunleavy said the state will start having a “different conversation” if intensive-care beds fill up or if more and more clusters of cases appear.
Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-550-8447.