In COVID-19, state leadership sees different priorities, problems

Some are particularly concerned with community outbreaks in rural areas
State and health officials hold a press conference on Oct. 21.
State and health officials hold a press conference on Oct. 21.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 22, 2020 at 6:03 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As COVID-19 case counts rise across Alaska, several regions are now on high alert after seeing drastic increases in community spread.

Yet, state officials seemed to have differing opinions about the need for concern regarding recent outbreaks of the disease.

“We always knew with this virus, cases were going to rise,” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who appeared for his first press conference in more than a month in which journalists were allowed to pose questions. “We just knew that, because it’s highly, highly contagious. Someone said this is probably one of the most contagious viruses they’ve dealt with in decades.”

Dunleavy’s address, however, was part of a mix of messages from state leadership, as Alaska heads for a week straight with more than 200 new cases per day. While he maintained the dramatic rise in cases seen across the state was predictable and unsurprising, state epidemiologists expressed dire concern.

“What’s concerning to me as the state epidemiologist, and I think to all of the public health folks who are on this call right now, is we are starting to see transmission occur more frequently,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, “and outbreaks occurring in our rural communities that have less access to healthcare and other infrastructure.”

Dunleavy maintained that his primary concern continues to be whether or not anything unexpected is happening and how that might affect statewide health care resources.

“We have clusters. We have cases growing all over the state. We know that," he said. “My approach to this is to say, ‘Is there anything unexpected that’s happening?’

“The stats are telling us the hospitalization rates are holding,” he continued. “Yes, their cases are going up. Cases are going up across the country. Cases are going up in Europe. And, you know, we know that. And we’re not minimizing that. But right now, we do have the health care capacity.”

During the Wednesday afternoon press conference, the first since Sept. 1, Dunleavy said he’s made changes to his personal routine to try and reduce his own risk. This was the first presser entirely over video conferencing. In his opening remarks, there was no direct mention of spikes in cases in rural Alaska, where there is often less access to health care than in urban communities.

In an earlier meeting of state health officials, however, McLaughlin expressed alarm at the spike in cases seen in rural areas.

“We are seeing sustained high level of COVID [sic] activity that’s statewide,” he said. “We are seeing more and more communities in rural Alaska - for example, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta - that have had cases, and outbreaks that have occurred in villages, in other small communities.”

While Dunleavy said the spread of the virus isn’t a surprise, and that health care capacity is just fine, for now, the message from the Department of Health and Social Services and McLaughlin is that people should practice three main things to stop the spread as much as possible: Stay six feet away from others, wear an appropriate face mask or covering, and wash your hands consistently. If you’re diagnosed with coronavirus, you should immediately begin notifying close personal contacts as contact tracers are getting backed up.

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