DHSS Press Release: Case surges create data backlog; public health officials are asking Alaskans to help

Nov. 23, 2020 ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) cautions that the surge in COVID-19 cases has strained the public health response, creating a backlog in case and contact investigations. DHSS is urging anyone who receives a positive test result to notify their own close contacts as soon as possible so individuals can quarantine without delay.

Across the nation, states are facing challenges in contact tracing and in efforts to reduce spread of the disease. Discussions are underway to consider the most effective strategies for tracking and mitigating the pandemic. Contact tracing remains a top priority for DHSS, but because of high case volume, public health officials are asking for the community’s help.

“We remain committed to doing everything we can to fight this pandemic,” said DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum. “This includes contact tracing, providing affordable and accessible testing, securing and shipping supplies to communities, supporting our health care partners and increasing mental health support. However, we’re at a point in this pandemic when we truly need everyone’s help. We’re urging Alaskans to reduce risks and take action to protect themselves, their loved ones and our communities.”

Individuals who test positive can find information to help them effectively isolate on the DHSS COVID-19 webpage. Alaskans who need food, housing or other non-medical assistance to effectively isolate or quarantine can contact Alaska 2-1-1 (dial 211 or 800-478-2221), their local Public Health Center or emergency operations center. They will be connected to agencies and resources in their community that can help.

“We acknowledge that what we’re asking may be very difficult,” said Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “Remember anyone can get COVID. There should be no stigma associated with this highly infectious disease. If you are identified as a close contact, please quarantine immediately and remain in quarantine for a full 14 days. And if you need help, please ask for support.”

“With the latest surge in cases, the state’s contact tracers have been forced to triage cases to ensure they are reaching the people most at risk for severe symptoms and those most likely to spread the disease,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “Even with additional staffing, multiple systems are unable to keep up with reporting, data entry and outreach to all infected individuals. For newly reported cases, contact tracers try to make first contact the day the cases are reported, as well as provide monitoring calls to some of the highest risk individuals. However, due to the delays in the process and some calls that can’t be initiated that first day, we recommend Alaskans call their own close contacts.”

Public health contact tracers are prioritizing who needs to be called first based on factors recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection including how long ago the person was tested, if the person lives or works in a location where there is a high risk of transmission (for example, a nursing home), or if the person is at higher risk for severe illness based on age or other factors.

It is likely that some individuals will not be contacted. To help fill this gap, health care providers and testing facilities are being asked to educate patients about actions they should take while waiting for their test result and if they test positive.

What Alaskans can do to help stop the spread of COVID-19

  • Get tested if you have any symptoms, even mild symptoms. Have a low threshold for testing.
  • While you’re waiting for a test result, STAY HOME and monitor your health for fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or sense of smell or other symptoms. As much as possible, stay away from others in your household. Many people may never experience symptoms but can still spread the infection to others who may become much sicker. Create a list of your recent close contacts so you can notify them immediately if you test positive.
  • If you test positive for COVID-19,
    • Isolate immediately. Stay home except to get medical care and minimize contact with everyone in your household. Refer to the “What to do after you test” handout for specific directions on what to do.
    • Notify close contacts. Quickly notify anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes (cumulative) within six feet of you over a 24-hour period so they quarantine immediately. Provide them with this handout on what to do during quarantine.
    • Seek care if needed. Stay in touch with your doctor and seek care if you have any emergency warning signs or you think it’s an emergency.
    • Answer the call: If you receive a phone call from a contact tracer, please answer the call and return their message. Many different entities are assisting with contact tracing so there is no caller ID. They will always tell you who they are, who they work for, and that they are calling about COVID-19. They never ask for money, your bank, credit card, social security number or immigration status. If you speak a language other than English, interpreters and interviewers who speak your language are available.
  • If you are a close contact, quarantine immediately and for the full 14 days. Get tested around day 7 of your quarantine, even if you don’t have symptoms. If the test is negative, STAY in quarantine. If the test is positive, isolate for 10 days and notify your close contacts.
  • Practice prevention and reduce risks. Follow the 3 W’s (wear a mask, wash hands frequently and watch your space by maintaining at least 6 feet from non-household members) and avoid the 3 C’s (closed spaces, crowded places and close contact situations).
  • If you need mental health support,
    • Careline Alaska: 877-266-4357, free, confidential help for anyone who needs to talk
    • National Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990. Immediate crisis counseling for people affected by COVID-19
    • Alaska Responders Relief Line: 844-985-8275. Support for medical workers on the front lines of COVID-19 and their families.

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Caring for Someone Sick at Home

There are important things to remember when caring for someone who has or might have COVID-19:

• Pick one person to care for the person who is sick, if possible. It should not be someone at higher risk for severe illness.
• If possible, have the person who is sick stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom.
• If you must share space, make sure the room has good airflow – open windows if possible.

For more tips from CDC on caring for someone sick at home visit: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html

Travelers! Remember Your Second Test.

Attention travelers! Let’s keep a lid on COVID‐19! Per Resolution 2020‐30, approved by the City and Borough of Sitka Assembly on November 10, all persons returning to Sitka after traveling (both in state and out of state) are strongly encouraged to take a second test (7 days after initial travel test) and continue strict social distancing until the result of the second test is received.

Testing for this purpose is available at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport daily from 5:30pm to 6:30pm. A testing voucher is in your Alaska Travel Portal account at https://www.alaska.covidsecureapp.com/

Give Thanks and Stay Safe

This is the year to find new and different ways to celebrate the holidays. This fall and winter, the lowest-risk celebrations involve staying close to home and getting together in-person with only immediate family or your small household bubble. Read this holiday blog from DHSS for ways to celebrate creatively and still include loved ones who are far away this year. http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/PlayEveryDay/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=480&fbclid=IwAR0gNj39CrPHN_EWqkyLdxbyZoZ0dyRkAc97LyI5l_fp8j6VZRjM20z1OXk

Health Order 8 and Sitka Travel

To reduce the spread of COVID-19, Governor Dunleavy recently issued new testing requirements and guidance for traveling within Alaska, specifically traveling from communities on the ferry/road system to communities off the ferry/road system. These rules take effect Saturday, November 21. Here’s how they apply when traveling in and out of Sitka:

* Sitka residents planning to travel to a community off the ferry or road system are required to get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to travel and should not travel until a negative test is received. If travel cannot be delayed until the test result is available, the traveler must follow strict social distancing until they receive a negative result. Testing for this purpose can be done daily at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport 5:30pm to 6:30pm.

* People traveling from a community off the ferry or road system to Sitka and staying in Sitka more than 72 hours are required to get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to traveling back home and should not travel until a negative test is received. If travel cannot be delayed until the test result is available, the traveler must follow strict social distancing until they receive a negative result. Testing for this purpose can be done daily at the Sitka Rocky Rocky Gutierrez Airport 5:30pm to 6:30pm.

* People traveling from a community off the ferry or road system to Sitka and staying in Sitka less than 72 hours can travel back home without testing, but have to either test for COVID-19 within 5 days of being home and follow strict social distancing until negative results are received, or follow strict social distancing for 14 days if no test is taken.

Anyone who is currently infected with COVID-19 must not travel to a community off the road/ferry system until they are cleared from isolation by a medical professional. Asymptomatic people who have recovered from a documented COVID-19 infection within the past 90 days are exempt from testing requirements.

For more information on these rules, refer to the State of Alaska’s COVID-19 Health Order 8 at https://covid19.alaska.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Outbreak-Health-Order-No-8-Intrastate-Travel.pdf

November 18: Unified Command Weekly Meeting

UNIFIED COMMAND DISCUSSES ROLLING OUT THE COVID CONSCIOUS BUSINESS PROGRAM AND VACCINATIONS

SITKA, November 18, 2020

Incident Commander, John Leach participated in a teleconference with northern communities in Southeast Alaska to discuss the 2021 cruise ship season, what the season may look like and impacts on communities – e.g. hospital capacity, medevacs.  Leach noted later in the meeting Amy Ainslie would speak to the COVID Conscious Business program planned for rollout soon. The program, like one launched in Valdez, recognizes businesses that meet certain COVID conscious health and safety criteria. In closing, Leach stated the weekly wastewater sample had been sent in for COVID-19 analysis, results were pending and would be shared on the COVID-19 Dashboard. To stay informed on case counts and mitigation recommendations go to https://cityofsitka.org/.

Sitka School District Superintendent, John Holst shared that Baranof Elementary School had a successful reopen on November 16. If the District starts to see a downward trend in cases, they will consider possibly reopening other schools.

Thor Christianson, Logistics Operations said body bags ordered in the Spring had just arrived.

Denise Ewing, Public Health Nurse, reviewed case counts on the COVID-19 Dashboard. She announced the State, along with SEARHC and the City, will be a part of vaccination planning for our community. The program will roll out over three phases. She urges citizens to visit the CBS COVID-19 Dashboard for the most up to date Sitka information.  It is updated by 5:00 pm each day.

SEARHC Liaison, Maegan Bosak shared as of November 18; 34,883 tests in Sitka have been processed. Currently there are no COVID patients at Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center. There is 1 COVID patient in isolation in their short-term housing.

Craig Warren, Operations Chief reported that asymptomatic testing for travel to communities off the road system is available at the airport from 5:30 – 6:30 pm every day.

Janelle Vanasse, Mt. Edgecumbe High School Superintendent said they are looking at options in how to support their students as they travel home for Christmas.

Trish White, pharmacist shared points of distribution plans for the phase 1 rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program for frontline health care workers and emergency response personnel.

Sitka Unified Command urges citizens to remain diligent and practice proper hygiene measures, such as washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with others and keeping your social circle small. In addition, stay home if you feel ill, wear a face covering when around others, and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces on a regular basis.

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to the flu – fever, aching, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, and sometimes decreased sense of taste and smell. If you are concerned you might have contracted the coronavirus contact the COVID hotline at 966.8799 daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Outside of normal clinic hours, patients can contact the SEARHC 24/7 Nurse Advice Line at 1.800.613.0560 to be triaged by a registered nurse. 

The Emergency Operations Center encourages residents to prepare for any local emergency by ensuring each family member has a 14- day emergency supply kit, including any necessary medications.

For information on the local pandemic response, visit cityofsitka.org or covid19.searhc.org.

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Testing Hours at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport for Travelers

COVID-19 testing is available at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport from 5:30pm to 6:30pm (daily) for those who have 1) traveled to Sitka and wish to take advantage of a free second test 7 to 14 days after arrival, and, 2) individuals traveling to a community OFF the road system in Alaska and who are in need of a pre travel test within 72 hours of travel.

A voucher for a second test 7 to 14 days after arrival is available in your Alaska Travel Portal account. https://www.alaska.covidsecureapp.com/

Traveling Within Alaska? New Rules Apply.

Alaska has issued new Health Orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Beginning 11/21, the following rules apply when traveling (or returning) to communities OFF the Road System or Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS):

**If you are in Sitka, and traveling to a community OFF the road system, you may go to the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport between 5:30pm to 6:30pm (daily) for a pre travel test within 72 hours of travel**

– Travelers infected with COVID-19 must not travel until cleared from isolation by a medical professional.

– Travelers who have been on the Road System or AMHS for more than 72 hours must test within 72 hours of travel and should not travel until negative results are received. If travel cannot be delayed until test results are available, travelers must follow strict social distancing until they receive negative results.

– Travelers who have been on the Road System or AMHS for 72 hours or fewer may return without testing before travel, but should test 5 days after arrival and follow strict social distancing until negative results are received, or follow strict social distancing for 14 days if no test is taken.

“Road System” is defined as any community connected by a road to the Seward, Parks, Klondike, Richardson, Sterling, Glenn, Haines, or Top of the World Highways.

Confirm community-specific travel requirements for your destination at: https://covid19.alaska.gov/local-borough-resources/?fbclid=IwAR2HC5c2eDTF27dQPRt0MZDY7J46XIUg2-7N87_yfe3C7ANtw2btrWEG3_Y

For more information about Health Order 8, visit: https://covid19.alaska.gov/health-order/?fbclid=IwAR2pxITtxXs5L80o42VNZwaELoi2fAmYVV8AGgw9a_14XShXEn1EW-u80m4

DHSS COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update for November 8-14

Brief status report

  • Virus transmission across Alaska increased for the seventh week in a row.
  • Hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to rise. Hospital capacity and staffing have become a significant concern.
  • Positivity rates for arriving travelers getting tested at Alaska airports have nearly doubled over the last two weeks, illustrating an increased risk of travel.
  • Testing is not keeping up with new cases.
  • Alaskans should get tested immediately at the first sign of any symptoms. Testing is our best tool for understanding virus transmission and risk in our communities.
  • Most Alaskans get COVID-19 from a friend, family member or coworker. Alaskans should avoid indoor gatherings with non-household members, avoid crowds, wear masks when around non-household members and stay six feet from anyone not in their household.

Case trends and predictions

  • For the seventh week in a row, more cases (3,930) were reported in Alaskans this week than any previous week, a 28% increase over last week.
  • The statewide positivity rate is at a record high for the seventh week in a row. Increases in testing are not keeping up with increases in cases.
  • Cases are increasing across urban and rural regions and increased in nearly every region this week. All regions of Alaska have high community transmission and are at a high alert level. The largest increase in cases was again in the Anchorage Municipality, which averaged over 300 new cases a day this week, for a 14-day case rate per 100,000 people of 92 up from 72 last week, closely followed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where the 14-day average case rate increased from 57 to 76.
  • An updated model epidemic curve predicts Alaska’s cases will continue to accelerate over the next week and are expected to double again within the next 39 days or sooner, with a daily growth rate near 2%. This curve reflects data up through November 7 but excludes some of the large increases in the last week as data is sometimes delayed in reporting; the true current daily growth rate may be higher than 2%.

Cases in Schools

In 50 of 54 school districts where updated data were available, 789 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported since August. 350 were in students, 251 in staff and 188 unspecified.

This reflects a disproportionate number of cases occurring in staff compared to students.

There are known incidences of staff-staff transmission at school and through social gatherings outside of school. Staff-student or student-staff transmission at school not occurring between household members has not been clearly identified. There are several incidents of student-student transmission reported.

Transmission of COVID-19 in schools or school activities has been confirmed or is strongly suspected in at least 14 occurrences across various districts. This is likely an underestimate as transmission in schools is difficult to ascertain when case rates are high and many people have had multiple potential exposures.

Staff, students and parents are encouraged to get tested at the first sign of any symptom and report any positive test in a staff member or student to the school so that the school can notify close contacts and make other safety determinations.

Travelers with COVID-19

The proportion of travelers testing positive at airport testing has more than doubled over the last three weeks, from around 1.1% to 2.6%. As airport tests are only free for Alaskan residents, this likely reflects substantially increased risk of travel over the last three weeks, which correlates with increased case rates across most of the United States.

New cases, hospitalizations and deaths

  • The week of November 8-14 saw 3,930 new cases in Alaskans, an increase from last week’s total of 28%, for a total of 22,662 cumulative cases in Alaskans.
  • Cumulative hospitalizations increased to 539 with 23 reported as occurring this week; hospitalization reports often lag and only 482 hospitalizations were reported at this time last week, so there are 57 hospitalizations newly reported this week including ones that began during previous weeks.
  • Deaths among Alaska residents increased by 14 to 98 total. Three of the reported deaths occurred this week and the other 11 occurred prior to the past week. It is common to take more than a week for a death to be reported, and more deaths of Alaskans with COVID-19 occurring Nov 7-14 may be reported in future.
  • There were 39 nonresident cases identified this week, for a total of 1,152.

Cases by Week Reported and Age Group

How COVID-19 spreads in Alaska

  • Most new infections among Alaskans are from community spread, not from travel. Most Alaskans get the virus from someone they work, socialize, or go to school with.
  • Many cases do not have a clear source, meaning that contact tracers have not been able to identify where the person got the virus. This means that there are cases in our communities that we do not know about.
  • Many Alaskans who are diagnosed with COVID-19 report that they went to social gatherings, community events, church services and other social venues while they were contagious but before they knew they had the virus.

Regional case trends

Behavioral Health RegionAverage new cases Sept 20- Oct 3Average new cases Sept 27- Oct 10Average new cases Oct 4- Oct 17Average new cases Oct 18- Oct 24Average new cases Oct 25- Oct 31Average new cases Nov 1- Nov 7Average new cases Nov 8- Nov 14
Anchorage Municipality21.528.932.240.455.872.091.7
Fairbanks North Star Borough21.235.033.329.933.735.242.8
Interior Region except Fairbanks North Star Borough7.911.317.121.625.629.337.2
Juneau City and Borough7.47.814.123.529.531.033.9
Kenai Peninsula Borough3.68.012.025.744.756.976.4
Matanuska-Susitna Region5.99.711.525.847.055.854.0
Northern Southeast Region4.92.82.47.77.312.920.6
Northwest Region30.735.739.136.235.238.843.7
Southern Southeast Region*2.24.33.25.023.731.5
Southwest Region4.76.47.29.216.122.023.5
Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region7.122.337.2100.1122.4127.1141.4
Statewide16.321.424.333.345.956.268.0

*Insufficient data; low case rate

Positivity rates

  • The statewide test positivity rate went from 6.9% to 8.8% this week, which is the seventh week in a row that it is the highest it has ever been.
  • Currently, the national average is 9.6%, up from 4.2% in October. Since Alaska’s per-capita testing capacity is more robust than 90% of states, a positivity rate near the national average is concerning. Source: Johns Hopkins
  • Test positivity can tell us if testing is adequate in an area. The goal is a positivity rate <2%. If the rate is over 5%, it means we are likely missing a lot of cases in that area.
  • Test positivity is affected by the number of tests performed as well as the number of new cases in an area.

Health care capacity

  • Hospitalizations hit record highs for the fourth week in a row.
  • Currently, 118 Alaskans with confirmed COVID-19 are hospitalized and 7 are requiring a mechanical ventilator.
  • Hospital staffing can change quickly, particularly if a community has many health workers impacted by COVID-19.

Total Confirmed COVID Beds Occupied

COVID-19 and travel

  • Travel is not currently thought to be a main factor in most new COVID-19 infections in Alaska, meaning that most Alaskans who get COVID-19 are getting it from social, work or family contacts rather than travel.
  • Travel for gatherings remains risky and gets more risky as cases rise across the US. The risk is from being in close contact and enclosed spaces with others while traveling as well as gathering with friends and family members indoors who may have COVID-19 and not know it.
  • Alaskans must follow Health Mandate 10.1 when returning from out-of-state travel.

What Alaskans should do

  • Alaskans should avoid gatherings and crowds, wear masks when around any non-household member, keep six feet of distance from anyone not in their household and wash hands frequently to slow community transmission of COVID-19.
  • Anyone with even one new symptom of COVID-19 (fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle aches, body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea), even if it is very mild, should get tested for COVID-19 right away and immediately isolate themselves from others by staying home, staying away from others, and not leaving their house except to seek testing or other medical care. Tests are most accurate in the first few days of symptoms, so testing as soon as possible after the first symptom starts is important, even if the symptom is very mild. Getting tested right away also helps contact tracers move as quickly as possible.
  • Alaskans can help contact tracers work to slow the spread of COVID-19 by answering the phone promptly and providing accurate information.

Further information

  • The Frequently Asked Questions webpage is often the quickest route to an answer regarding testing, travel, health mandates and other COVID-19 information.
  • Please see the State of Alaska COVID-19 information page for more information about the virus and how individuals and businesses can protect themselves and others from transmission.
  • For the most up-to-date case information, see the Alaska Coronavirus Response Hub dashboard. Some data may change as more information comes to light through contact tracing and other public health work.
  • For questions regarding DHSS COVID response, including mandates and alerts, email covidquestions@alaska.gov.

For DHSS media inquiries, please contact clinton.bennett@alaska.gov.