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

The state reported 21 new cases of COVID-19 in residents and nonresidents across Alaska Wednesday as members of the House Health and Social Services Committee expressed concern to state health officials over what they see as a lax approach to masking and facial coverings in public. 

Of the 21 new cases reported Wednesday, 14 were Alaska residents and seven were nonresidents in the state.

Three of the 14 new resident cases are from the Fairbanks North Star Borough — two in Fairbanks and one in North Pole — bringing the total number of borough residents to test positive to 122. Thirty-six of those cases remain active. The other 11 residents to have tested positive include one from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, one in Palmer, one in the Mat-Su Borough, one from Chugiak and seven from Anchorage.

The seven new nonresident cases include four in the Fairbanks North Star Borough — one visitor, two mining workers and one worker in an unknown industry.

The other three nonresident cases are made up of one seafood worker in the Combined Bristol Bay and Lake & Peninsula boroughs, one worker in an unknown industry in the Kodiak Island Borough and one individual in Anchorage. It remains unknown whether the nonresident Anchorage case is a visitor or worker from out of state.

As cases continue to rise in Anchorage, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has said he is open to the idea of a municipality-wide mandate requiring the wearing of masks or cloth face coverings when in public areas — a concept suggested Wednesday morning by a number of House members as a possible statewide approach to stemming the sharp spike in cases seen across Alaska over the past month.

A statewide mandate would be needed in order to encompass certain boroughs and communities in Alaska that do not have their own health powers like Anchorage does as a first class borough. The Fairbanks North Star Borough, for example, is one of those boroughs that does not have the power to enact health mandates of its own. 

This was a concern of Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, who chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee. 

“I encourage the state to take politics out of the equation and do what’s best for Alaskans by immediately issuing a temporary mandate that face masks are worn in public places where it’s difficult to maintain physical distance,” Zulkosky said, referencing a common claim that certain health mandates infringe on personal liberty.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in past talks with reporters, has pointed to this concern as one of the reasons he does not believe in the strict enforcing of health mandates, rather choosing to trust that Alaskans will “do the right thing.”

The increase in daily case counts began May 22, the same day that Dunleavy implemented the final phase of his plan to reopen the state after largescale closures of gyms, churches, businesses and social gatherings in the early months of the pandemic.

About 35% of the state’s 792 total resident cases remain active, according to state health department data. 

In responding to Zulkosky’s concerns Wednesday morning, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink acknowledged that wearing masks has been proven to be a key method is slowing the public spread of the disease but stopped short of supporting a statewide mandate.

One new hospitalization was reported Wednesday bringing the total number of Alaskans hospitalized for the disease to 64. No new deaths were reported.

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

@FDNMpolitics.

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