Here’s what experts in Alaska want you to know about the new coronavirus

(Illustration/Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, CDC)

Amid the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus, health officials are stressing that at this point the risks posed to Alaskans are minimal. Answering questions on Tuesday’s Talk of Alaska program, experts from the state and federal government explained what residents should know about the virus.

As of Feb. 4, 20,630 cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide by the World Health Organization, along with 425 deaths.

“The vast majority of cases, and almost all deaths, have been in China, and most of this has been in Hubei Province in central China,” said Dr. Jay Butler, Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the WHO, 159 cases have been confirmed in other countries, including 11 individuals in the United States.

There is still a lot that public health officials don’t know about the new coronavirus. It was first detected at the end of last year. And according to Butler it’s not clear yet how deadly it is compared to other upper-respiratory coronaviruses from recent years like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

“Based on the numbers out of China, the mortality is looking like its just under two percent,” Butler said.

“That may sound like a low number, but keep in mind that was basically the same overall mortality as the 1918 pandemic,” he added.

The early 20th century influenza epidemic (also referred to as the Spanish Flu) killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In Alaska, it hit the indigenous population particularly hard, devastating Alaska Native communities. That history of susceptibility and isolation is one of the reasons a Talk of Alaska caller said people like him living off the road system are especially concerned about the potential for disease transmission.

“Some of the rural communities live in Third World conditions,” said Jim from Ekwok. “You don’t have no running water, some of them are still using honey buckets, and the housing is so bad some places.”

While acknowledging those concerns, experts on the program stressed that the flu presents a significantly greater health threat to Alaskans than the novel coronavirus. So far, the state has no suspected cases. As of Sunday, all passenger airline travel from China is routed through just 11 U.S. airports. None are in Alaska (although Seattle’s SEA-TAC is on the list).

The Ted Stevens International Airport played a role last week in repatriating 195 U.S. citizens on a chartered flight back from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the current outbreak. The plane stopped briefly to refuel in an isolated airport terminal closed to the public. Passengers underwent health screenings before continuing on to California. 

“The area where these passengers were screened has not had any additional passengers go through,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s Chief Medical Officer.

The repatriation flight was a one-time event, Zink said on “Talk of Alaska,” with no similar operations planned. However, the North Terminal of Ted Stevens airport is one of the CDC’s 20 official quarantine stations across the country. But it’s more procedural than it might sound: for years, that same facility has been equipped to handle sick passengers, keeping them isolated and getting them medical treatment should the need arise.

According to Zink, those are the plans that officials initiated once the state was asked to handle last week’s repatriation flight.

“We were able to use a lot of the work that went into the H1N1 epidemic. We were able to use the work that had been done on Ebola, and build off of those previous structures to be able to respond to this mission,” Zink said. “I honestly think it allowed Alaska to have a head start compared to most of the rest of the nation to being able to be prepared for this novel coronavirus.”

Though officials are still trying to learn what makes individuals most susceptible to the new illness, vulnerable populations like the elderly and those with underlying conditions appear to be most at risk.

The advice for how to keep safe from the new illness is to take the same precautions for guarding against the flu: Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based sanitizer, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and avoid individuals who are sick.

You can listen to the full “Talk of Alaska” program on the novel coronavirus here.