Resident of 90-bed Fairbanks center for seniors and rehab tests positive for COVID-19

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (in yellow) — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (in blue/pink) cultured in a lab. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – Rocky Mountain Laboratories)

All 75 residents of a Fairbanks rehabilitation and senior center are being tested for COVID-19 after an elderly woman there tested positive for the disease, the center’s operators said Saturday.

The Denali Center’s 135 staff members are being tested for COVID-19, too, while residents are in quarantine and wearing masks to prevent the spread of the disease. The woman, who’s over 80, remains only mildly symptomatic, with a slightly elevated temperature that doesn’t technically qualify as a fever, officials from the Denali Center said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.

But the confirmed case still comes as frustrating and alarming news, given the serious threat that the coronavirus poses to the elderly, officials said. At the Seattle-area senior home that was an early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., 35 residents have died.

“This is the last population we would want to be infected,” Karen Perdue, a former state health commissioner and a board member of the foundation that runs the Denali Center, said at the news conference.

Foundation Health Partners, which operates the Denali Center and the Fairbanks hospital, believe the resident caught the disease from a staff member who also tested positive, FHP said in a prepared statement.

Five FHP employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Denali Center staff has been “rigorously following” state and federal guidelines to reduce the risk to residents, FHP said. Residents were kept apart and outside visitors were not allowed into the center, FHP’s statement said.

“Maybe we could have done more. You always probably could,” Shelley Ebenal, FHP’s chief executive, said Saturday. “But I’ve got to say: Our facility has been on this, and they’ve been working hard. And yes, they’re frustrated.”

State officials praised the response at the Denali Center.

“The facility is doing an excellent job of responding swiftly to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, said in a prepared statement. “They are working closely with our epidemiologists to determine which residents and staff are at highest risk for exposure, and implementing control measures that are consistent with national guidelines.”

After a call with state health officials Friday, FHP put in place “the most extreme and aggressive measures we’ve taken” to mitigate COVID-19’s spread at the Denali Center, FHP said. 

Beyond the testing, those measures include outfitting staff with eye protection, gowns, masks, gloves and a face shield.

FHP has also done a “terminal clean” of the Denali Center, which includes removing “every detachable item” in the room for disinfection, along with cleaning light fixtures, air ducts and surfaces from the ceiling to the floor, it said in the statement.

At the news conference — also attended by Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly — FHP officials pleaded with people in the city to do their own part to contain COVID-19, saying that those efforts could help protect Denali Center residents and other vulnerable populations.

“Our health care workers are also members of our community,” said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, a top FHP official. “And so, whatever we can do as a community to stop the spread of this disease is absolutely critical.”