Novel coronavirus

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.

Credit: NIAID-RML

Alaska has 59 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, according to the Department of Health and Social Services, and nearly half are in the Anchorage area.

The state's webpage is now breaking case counts down by community rather than just region as was previously done. According to the state's data, Fairbanks has eight confirmed cases and North Pole has three. This is two additional cases since Tuesday; one in Fairbanks and one in North Pole, according to the department.

An airman at Eielson Air Force Base has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Wednesday evening news release from Eielson Air Force Base.

"The airman had recent travel history in the continental United States; however, contact with others was minimal due to installation policy resulting in the individual being placed in quarantine upon return to the local area," the news release reads.

It remains unclear whether the Eielson case is the same as the confirmed new case in North Pole. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink did not have the information regarding the two cases.

"Nor am I sure that I would necessarily share that," Zink said, later clarifying she wasn't trying to hide anything.

Earlier Wednesday it was announced that a male employee at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital tested positive for COVID-19, according to Foundation Health Partners, which operates the hospital.

The employee was self-monitoring for symptoms as part of a new mandatory temperature monitoring system put into place for all foundation employees last week, but he was not self-isolating at the time.

When he began experiencing symptoms Friday, he began isolating at home. When his symptoms progressed, he was tested Saturday at Tanana Valley Clinic's 1st Care.

His test results were confirmed late Monday. He is now self-isolating at home and his symptoms and state of health are being monitored by the foundation's occupational health system, according to Shelley Ebenal, CEO and director of Foundation Health Partners, which also operates Tanana Valley Clinic and Denali Center.

This case is not a new case for the state and was reported Tuesday by the Department of Health and Social Services as one of the two new cases in Fairbanks.

The last contact the employee had with hospital staff was Friday, Ebenal said, adding that the state epidemiology team is tracing the person's contacts and that the foundation is in the process of informing any known contacts of the patient.

"This is an eventuality that we have prepared for," said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, quality medical director for Foundation Health Partners.

Ramirez explained that the foundation and health care facilities are taking stock of their personal protective gear and implementing "thoughtful use" of the equipment so as to use stores responsibly amid concerns of an eventual shortage should cases continue to rise.

Also Wednesday, Tanana Chiefs Conference confirmed a positive test. Results came back Wednesday morning but few details on the individual were provided. The test was administered last week, according to Victor Joseph, chief and chairman of the Fairbanks-based organization.

This patient is the one new case of COVID-19 confirmed in Fairbanks Wednesday afternoon by the state.

The Alaska State Virology Laboratory, located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, continues to be overloaded with tests, Ebenal explained. But UAF is working to provide technical assistance while the foundation provides administrative help. The lab is in need of an additional microbiologist to assist with testing samples, but turnaround time for results still remains within approximately 48 hours of the test being delivered to the lab.

Of the 59 cases statewide, two patients are hospitalized in critical condition, according to Zink.

The 17 new cases announced Wednesday consist of eight males and nine females. Three patients are between the ages of 19 and 29, nine are between the ages of 30 and 59, five are over the age of 60.

Given the increase in cases across the state, Gov. Mike Dunleavy told reporters Wednesday it is likely many of his statewide mandates closing bars, gyms, certain businesses and dine-in restaurant services will be extended past the previous expiration date of April 1. A decision on a possible extension will be made in the next few days, he said.

Jay Butler, the deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called into Wednesday evening's media briefing. He said a vaccine for COVID-19 available for general use likely won’t be ready for another 12 to 18 months.

Until then, patients in stable condition are encouraged to isolate at home and treat the illness as you would a flu, with increased fluids, rest, and cold and flu medicine to control a fever. Patients with more severe symptoms are treated in a hospital or medical facility to assist in fighting lung function.

Failure in lung function due to infection is the most common cause of death due to the virus, Butler noted.

Alaska and much of the rest of the United States is past the point of containment and has now entered the mitigation phase –– a point in time in which social distancing and staying out of public spaces is critical, Butler explained.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.