Dunleavy: Alaska has entered virus ‘acceleration phase’

The state’s chief medical officer is urging Alaska residents to avoid all activities with people outside their households, especially indoor activities, citing a rapid increase in reported COVID-19 cases.

“If you must be around others – wear a mask and stay distanced at least 6 feet,” Dr. Anne Zink said on her Facebook page Sunday.

The state health department reported about 880 new confirmed cases over the weekend, including a new-daily high of 526 cases, which included six non-residents, on Sunday. Nearly 350 additional cases were reported Monday.

The department over the weekend attributed the numbers to widespread community transmission, increased testing in many areas and public health staff entering backlogged case information. It may take “several days” before cases are entered into the system, the department said.

More than 13,300 resident cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic, with the state’s more populous regions as well as parts of rural Alaska, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, currently considered in high alert status. That means there is broad community transmission “with many undetected cases and frequent discrete outbreaks,” according to the health department.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which administers a health care system throughout dozens of rural communities, has urged residents there to avoid non-essential travel and gatherings, along with the now-standard advice of wearing a mask in public, maintaining distance from others and regularly washing hands.

The corporation, in a status report Friday, said that without an “immediate broad behavior change by the public, cases of this highly contagious virus will continue to climb.”

The Alaska Psychiatric Institute said Friday it would not admit new clients for 14 days after several patients were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state has entered an “acceleration phase,” but on his Facebook page said “this is not unexpected as Alaskans moved indoors with the changing seasons.” Alaska is known for its long, dark, cold winters. He cited as positives the state’s hospitalization and mortality rates and said the state is “doubling down” on efforts to ensure it has sufficient resources to respond to coronavirus cases.

Alaska is among the states that have reported the fewest COVID-19-related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Case Tracker. The state health department reports 68 such deaths.

There is no statewide mask mandate, though some communities, such as Juneau, require masks in certain indoor public spaces. The state will not mandate a vaccine once one becomes available, Dunleavy told reporters last week.

He said he’s changed his routine in response to COVID-19, including conducting most meetings online or by phone and wearing masks “often,” though he said there are times he won’t wear one, such as when he’s speaking to people.

“And I understand that that increases the risk, but I also understand that all of the other mitigation efforts that I’m doing is also contributing to lowering the risk,” he said, adding that he’s “ramping up my game” on a personal level.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin recently told reporters there are people who don’t want to participate in contract tracing.

“My nursing staff frequently reports getting hung up on by people that they’re trying to notify,” he said, adding that could be due to such things as COVID-19 “fatigue” — people being fed up with the virus — or job-related pressures.

Mandates and restrictions in places like Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, fueled a backlash from people who saw the actions as overreaching.

But Victoria Miller, a nurse practitioner who works in telemedicine in Anchorage, said she has no problem when she’s out in public asking someone who is not wearing a mask to wear one and has considered bringing masks with her to share.

“They just kind of roll their eyes and keep going,” she said of the typical response, adding she thinks it’s important to say something anyway.