As number of COVID-19 cases grows, Alaska officials warn of a limited healthcare system

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Office of the Governor)

As coronavirus continues to spread in Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state medical officials doubled down Thursday on the message that Alaskans need to stay home and away from others because, they said, the state doesn’t have the medical infrastructure to handle a surge of COVID-19 cases. 

“All of the modeling and all of the predictions show that the current infrastructure in Alaska alone is not going to be enough to handle this disease,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.

Zink said the state is working to scale up its ability to respond to the virus. But, she said, it’s not going to be enough if Alaskans don’t work to slow the rate of infection. 

Zink said frontline medical workers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and, because medical supply chains have been disrupted globally, medical personnel are having to ration safety equipment like masks and gowns. 

“Literally every day that we can buy to get more (protective equipment) for the front lines — to get more ventilators, to get more alternative care sites set up — helps us to be able to help you when we see this disease really take hold in Alaska,” Zink said. 

Read the latest coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska.

The coronavirus primarily affects the lungs and, in severe cases, patients have to be hooked up to ventilators to survive. But other states that currently have major outbreaks are reporting shortages of ventilators, which means medical providers have to decide who gets them and who doesn’t. 

For days, reporters have been asking state officials how many ventilators Alaska currently has. Zink has said repeatedly that it’s tricky to pin down. 

One of the reasons, she said on Thursday, is that individual hospitals are supposed to self-report that number to the state. 

“We ask them to report that data to us. There are limitations in that reporting, it’s not mandatory,” she said. “So we’re working with them to get that information.”

Between hospitals, surgical centers and private practices, Zink estimated that there are about 200 ventilators in the state. But, that’s not representative of how many adults could be treated at one time. Some of the ventilators are built for children or specially built for travel and would need to be re-purposed, she said.

Related: Alaska health department confirms 10 new COVID-19 cases

For about three weeks, Dunleavy, Zink and Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum have provided regular updates on the state’s strategy for combating the coronavirus — including several public health mandates that have changed daily life across Alaska. 

But, by Thursday, they had not gone as far as issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order, despite calls from doctors that the governor do so. Many Alaska communities have already imposed versions of the order on their residents, including in rural parts of the state and in Anchorage.

Related: To curb coronavirus spread, North Slope Borough suspends travel into its communities

Dunleavy said there will be another update on the state response Friday. At that point, he said, the state will “have a discussion about travel within Alaska.” 

He said they’ll also talk about the economic impact of the virus. Though, that discussion will be ongoing, Dunleavy said, as details of the state Legislature’s stimulus plans and the federal government’s stimulus package emerge.