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 recorded 60 new COVID-19 cases Thursday — 11 of them in the Fairbanks North Star Borough — and one new fatality, according to a Friday morning update from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. 

The department also announced that the sharp increase in cases is straining the existing system of tracking down people who have come into contact with each infected person. 

Of the new cases, 46 are of residents and 14 are of nonresidents.

The 11 new cases of Fairbanks borough residents is the highest recorded in the borough during the virus outbreak.

The new death is of an Anchorage man in his 80s who died June 11, according to state information.

Friday’s announcement of 60 total cases follows Thursday’s announcement of 50 total cases, continuing the daily increase. A health department projection shows the case count continuing an upward trajectory.

The rising number of cases and the increased mixing among the population following the loosened restrictions has made contract tracing more difficult and reduced the number of times infected people are checked on during quarantine, according to health officials. 

“Early on, people who tested positive usually had a short list of close contacts,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist. “Now, as people are mixing more with others, it’s not uncommon for someone who tests positive to have had dozens of close contacts, sometimes too many to name and call. That’s making it really difficult for our contact tracers to keep pace.”

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said the state is trying to increase the number of people doing contract tracing.

“We’re working extremely hard to expand our workforce but with so many recent cases, we are not able to continue daily check-in phone calls to people in quarantine,” she said “Our contact tracers are now contacting most people who have been identified as a close contact to a confirmed case only once to inform them of their exposure, the need to remain in quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms, and what to do if symptoms arise.”

Previously, contact tracing was done by staff at the Division of Public Health, the Anchorage Health Department, Maniilaq Association, North Slope Borough, Anchorage School District, CDC Arctic Investigations Program, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

Friday’s announcement from the Department of Health and Social Services said contact tracing is being expanded by doing the following:

• Hiring additional nonpermanent staff in the Division of Public Health

• Partnering with Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and other Alaska school districts to make use of school nurses

• Deploying Alaska Air National Guard members with health and public health experience

• Working with the University of Alaska Anchorage, College of Health to create a training system for contact tracers and to directly hire additional contact tracers.

Contact Editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.