Anchorage officials are “hyper-vigilant” after COVID spike, but no new restrictions are planned

A scanning electron micrograph shows a cell (green) heavily infected with particles (yellow) of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

An Anchorage resident has died of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Alaska to 12. A Providence Alaska spokesman confirmed the person was a patient at its transitional care center, where a recent outbreak has infected more than 40 people. 

The news comes as the state reported 15 new cases of the virus, the sixth straight day of double-digit growth. The state has the highest number of active cases since it began recording them in March. 

The recent rise in the number of coronavirus cases has Anchorage officials concerned. 

“We have a much higher level of concern this week than what we had last,” said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference on Friday, “The cases are climbing, we still have limited supplies, the public health capacity is stretched thin and we are in a hyper-vigilant position.”

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Anchorage saw 39 of the state’s 90 new cases last week, including a cluster of over twenty cases at the transitional care center. Berkowitz said that city residents need to reduce the rate of disease transmission by about 15% in order to avoid having to return to a “hunker down” order. 

The city is keeping a color-coded assessment of how well it is prepared in various categories. Most of those categories now fall in the “yellow” or “warning” level, including its public health, personal protective equipment and testing capacities. But Berkowitz said there is no hard-and-fast rule for when those grades will lead to more restrictions. 

“This is not a rigid formula that’s going to determine what our actions are,” he said. “The actions we take are going to be driven significantly by this data.”

Instead, public health officials and the mayor’s office meet every week to go over data and determine whether there is a need to ease restrictions or impose new ones. 

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Anchorage’s health director Natasha Pineda said that the number of tests performed over the last week has fallen, despite the rise in cases. Pineda attributed that to the higher demands placed on contact tracers following the rise in cases. She said that’s led the city to start looking into contracting out testing, something the state has already done at some airports. 

“We’re going to go ahead and start doing that as well because we’ve recognized that we just aren’t going to be able to get out there and do the testing that we’d like to do so we’ve reached out to those partners,” she said. 

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Pineda said the city is also preparing to release its citywide testing strategy, which will inform how tests are distributed. 

While Berkowitz urged city residents to double down on mask-wearing and social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus, he said any decision to impose tighter restrictions is also driven by things outside of the city’s control.

“One of the things that we watch very carefully, for example, is the spread of the disease, outside of Anchorage,” he said. “And because the hospital capacity that we have in Anchorage is, in essence, the hospital capacity for the entire state and if there were to be a large number of cases outside of Anchorage, that that led to a number of people being medevaced into Anchorage, and consuming the medical capacity here, that would affect the decisions that we make,.”

The state reported Friday that less than half of Alaska’s 198 ICU beds were occupied. Thirty-one of the state’s 348 ventilators were in use.