FMH COVID-19 cases news conference

Clint Brooks, right, chief operating officer of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, speaks about the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Fairbanks during an emergency press conference Monday night, March 16, 2020, at the hospital. 

Two men in Fairbanks have tested positive for COVID-19, officials with Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Foundation announced Monday night.

The men had both traveled to the Lower 48 to areas with high COVID-19 cases and upon returning to Fairbanks felt ill. The men sought testing at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital after displaying symptoms, and the hospital learned of their test results Monday evening. The two cases are separate, as the men are not believed to be linked. Their names have not been released to protect patient confidentiality.

"We are considering both of these cases travel-related cases," Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical officer, said by telephone at a news conference at the hospital. "Our epidemiology team is still in the process of investigating all of their contacts, where they've been in their travels, but both have been in the Lower 48 in places seeing sustained ongoing community-to-community transmission and had returned to Alaska during that time."

The state's epidemiology team is now in the process of finding out who the two men came into contact with and are tracing their steps within Fairbanks. The two men are isolating in their homes, Zink said, and the state's epidemiology team might be contacting people by telephone who have had contact with either man. Both men have been in the community for "a period of time," Zink said, and traveled within the community.

"This is a good reminder if you've been in the Lower 48 in the past 14 days, it is incredibly important that you are staying away from others and making sure that you are socially distancing 6 feet away so that we can try to mitigate the spread of this disease," she said.

The emergency news conference, attended by hospital and state health officials, Monday night was called immediately after the diagnosis was received. The two positives were part of a batch of tests the hospital was running Monday. Zink called the positive cases an "ongoing investigation the team is working on 'round the clock."

The two men's families will be asked to be quarantined, Zink said, and any people who had close contact with them will also be asked to be quarantined — not to go to work, school, restaurants or bars.

"This is where we as a community need to work together and make sure people follow those recommendations," she said about social distancing measures.

The cases are the second and third COVID-19 cases in Alaska. The first was a foreign national who arrived in the state as a pilot on a cargo flight. He developed a fever and respiratory problems shortly after he arrived on March 11. He went to Alaska Regional Hospital for treatment, was stable and in quarantine, Anchorage officials said.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said people who are returning to Alaska from spring break should pay attention to people around them and isolate as much as possible, just in case they've been exposed.

A hotline has been established at the hospital for people who have questions or concerns about whether they've been exposed to the coronavirus. That number is 907-458-2888.

"This is not the time to go to a bar and give your friend a hug," said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, quality medical director with Foundation Health Partners, which operates Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, the Denali Center and Tanana Valley Clinic.

"Our mission is the health and well-being of all Alaskans," she said. "This is a significant outbreak. It's been a little bit of a race against time. We will need everybody's help."

Testing supplies are still limited, but the hospital foundation has been trying to round up as many supplies as possible and hopes to set up a drive-through testing site as soon as this week, Ramirez said. It is important to test the most vulnerable people first, she said.

"We know the community wants this and desires this," she said.

Having a test does not change the treatment, Ramirez said. The preferred treatment is isolation.

Shelley Ebenal, CEO of Foundation Health Partners, emphasized that residents need to make sure they wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and socially isolate. She noted that the group of people at the news conference was not an ideal situation.

"We need community support," Ebenal said. "We need you to listen to guidelines and obey them. If we don't, our health system will be overwhelmed."

Testing is continuing, Zink said, with more than 250 people being tested so far. Three have been positive and the state will update its statistics at noon on Tuesday.

"Get ready, get set, go, guys," Ebenal said. "It's here."

Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or Staff writers Julie Stricker and Kris Capps contributed to this report.