Alaska health officials update Health & Social Services Committee on coronavirus

The House Health & Social Services Committee received an update on coronavirus response efforts in Alaska on Thursday from Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer of the Department of Health & Social Services. 


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According to Dr. Zink’s presentation, there are four common types of coronaviruses: 229E, NL63, OC43 and HKU1. The outbreak of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, is the fifth and latest strain. Two previous outbreaks of coronavirus emerged from SARS or MERS strains. 

“Four of those strains together are responsible for 10 to 30 percent of upper respiratory infections in adults every year,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist for the State of Alaska. “The transmissibility of this novel virus is much higher in terms of human transmission.”

The latest outbreak emerged from Wuhan, China, and was first reported by health officials there on Dec. 31, 2019. In less than a month, the World Health Organization reported 60,360 cases worldwide. Approximately 1,370 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 died, according to the numbers provided in Dr. Zink’s presentation.

Fifteen cases were confirmed in the United States so far, although no deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to the virus, despite one American dying from the virus in China.

The fatality rate for the latest strain remains low, at only two percent. SARS, by comparison, had a fatality rate of 10 percent, while MERS had a 35 percent fatality rate. Public health officials aren’t sure why COVID-19 is less deadly than other strains of coronavirus, but efforts continue to find out why this strain has a lower fatality rate. 

“These are all questions researchers are looking into and gathering information on,” McLaughlin said. 

Coronavirus can be spread via infected secretions of aerosol droplets, according to Dr. Zink’s report, and being in contact with someone exposed to COVID-19. McLaughlin added drinking out of the same cup, sharing the same utensil or shaking someone’s hand and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth are all methods of transmission. 

Despite having rapid methods of diagnosis and a rollout for more testing sites throughout the country, there is as of yet no known method of treatment. Public health officials acknowledged there isn’t likely to be a vaccine or treatment available in the near term. 

“Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for COVID-19,” McLaughlin said. “It’s likely about a year out.”

The best way to avoid contracting COVID-19, Dr. Zink said, is to stay healthy by washing the hands often, avoiding touching the nose, mouth or eyes, covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing and regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects, among other preventative measures. 

Despite having no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Alaska, health officials in the state worked with CDC officials to assist repatriation efforts of 240 American citizens and their families as the travelers came back to the U.S. from China. All the passengers on that plane were given the “all clear” after a 14-day quarantine period, which resulted in no cases of COVID-19. 

“All of the people who worked with that plane are out of any risk or any concern for that flight landing,” said Dr. Zink. “All of the passengers on the plane are being allowed to return home.”

In an effort to prevent further spread of COVID-19, cruise lines departing from Alaskan ports are screening passengers via a pre-screening process before boarding, according to Dr. Zink’s presentation.