An Alaskan has died from the coronavirus in Washington state, Alaska officials announced on Tuesday.
The person acquired the disease and died in Washington, but was an Alaska resident, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said at a news conference Tuesday evening. She said under federal rules, that counts as an Alaska fatality. It’s the first Alaskan who’s known to have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We just know that they had not recently traveled from Alaska, they had been in Washington for a while,” Zink said.
Zink declined to say whether the deceased was a man or a woman, citing patient privacy. She said the Alaskan was in a higher-risk group, as an older person with an underlying health problem.
In a statement late Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said the Alaskan was a resident of Southeast Alaska who died on March 16 at a health care facility in King County, Washington, “after a prolonged stay there.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, both Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Zink pleaded with Alaskans to stay at home, keep their distance from each other and avoid public interactions so the virus doesn’t take off across the state.
“You’ve got to stay away from others,” Dunleavy said. “Two weeks is what we’re asking. We believe that in this two-week period we can do so much to combat this virus. We want to do it with your help.”
Dunleavy did not go as far as issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order on Tuesday, despite requests from doctors and versions of the measure enacted in communities including Anchorage. He said in other states “not everyone is complying with staying in their house in these shelter-in-place orders,” and Alaskans have the opportunity to go outside and stay away from others.
“So that’s why you’re not seeing a hammer come down from the state because, in a way, we want people to go on walks, as long as they are distanced from each other,” Dunleavy said. “We want people to go cross-country ski with what’s left of the spring. We want people to maybe mush their dogs or skijor.”
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska has continued to grow each day since the first case was announced in Anchorage on March 12. By Tuesday evening, there were 42 known COVID-19 cases in the state, up from 36 a day before.
The new cases include two in Fairbanks, one in Juneau, two in Ketchikan and one in Sterling, according to the state health department. The Juneau case was travel-related and two other cases, one in Fairbanks and one in Sterling, “were acquired from close contacts,” the health department said. The rest are under investigation. They all involve adults.
More than 1,600 Alaskans have now been tested.
Zink on Tuesday appealed to Alaskans to not consider themselves exceptions to social distancing. Now is the time to make a difference to slow the spread of the virus so Alaska’s health care system doesn’t become overwhelmed, she said.
“If we could wave a magic wand and have no one get within six feet of each other, we could snuff out this virus very quickly,” Zink said. “But if we continue to congregate, if we continue to not clean our surfaces, if we continue to think that we’re a special exception to it, it’s just going to increase and it’s going to continue.”
She said what actions Alaskans take now are “going to literally mean the life and death between your neighbor, your loved one, your spouse, yourself.”
“This isn’t something any of us have ever experienced before,” she said. “And it’s secret and it’s sneaky and it filters throughout, and it lives on surfaces and you think you’re fine and you’re not.”
In addition to the person who has died, another Alaskan with COVID-19 was in intensive care on Tuesday at a hospital in Juneau.
On Monday, state officials announced a new, mandatory two-week quarantine for all people traveling into Alaska. It applies to residents, workers and travelers and goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. The state’s order closing businesses that, by necessity, bring people within six feet of each other went into effect Tuesday evening. It includes hair salons, nail salons and tattoo shops, but excludes health care clinics.
Across the country by Tuesday, there were more than 44,000 known cases of COVID-19 and 544 deaths, according to the CDC.