Adam McMahan
Workers at SEARHC perform drills to prepare for the coronavirus.

As the number of U.S. coronavirus cases continues to climb, state and local government are working to increase preparation for when the disease inevitably reaches Alaska.

In Haines, employees at the local Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) clinic conducted a drill with the borough’s emergency service providers last week to prepare for dealing with a potentially infected patient.

The drill involved education about the disease’s symptoms, screening protocol and prevention as well as a practical exercise using a simulation doll in mock respiratory distress, SEARHC director of marketing and communications Maegan Bosak said. The drill went well and will be the first in a series of weekly meetings to improve collaboration between clinic employees and other members of the community, she said.

SEARHC is in communication with national, state and local agencies and working to define roles within the organization to make sure an emergency can be handled efficiently, Bosak said. SEARHC “received COVID-19 screening protocols in early February and all locations have been given direction to screen all patients meeting symptomatic requirements.”

The clinic is also taking inventory of supplies and equipment to make sure quantities are in good stock and equipment is easily accessible, Bosak said. “While quantities are currently sufficient, should patient volumes increase in the event of covid-19 reaching Southeast, measures are being taken to increase available stock.”

“There is definitely an education program going on with our emergency services people to interface with the clinic about how we deal with the possibility of the virus being imported through cruise lines or another port of entry,” borough manager Debra Schnabel said. “We’re working with state agencies that have developed a response plan.”

This plan, titled “Alaska Multi-Agency Maritime Communicable Disease Emergency Response Plan,” outlines protocol for dealing with the outbreak of a disease on a ship entering the state including quarantine procedures and communication between local government and agencies including the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Anchorage Quarantine Station. The borough was sent the plan on Feb. 13 by the Juneau office of the Coast Guard.

“We’re learning what we need to know and practicing what we need to do in the instance that (the coronavirus) is identified in the community,” Schnabel said. She said concerns about the disease’s spread have coincided with the borough’s ongoing effort to improve its emergency response system.

“We are focused now on identifying personnel to fill the roles of our emergency communications and decision-making team.” The borough has a mass rescue tabletop exercise scheduled for April 25 where the Coast Guard creates a mock emergency situation that Haines must respond to. It’s an exercise the borough is supposed to hold every year but has not for the past several, Schnabel said.

The borough is working with the state to develop an emergency response plan for flooding and other natural disasters, Schnabel said. The second in a series of meetings related to this issue is scheduled for March 25.

While improving Haines’ ability to respond to emergencies has been a work in progress for many months, the recent spread of the coronavirus has served as a reminder of the importance of preparation, Schnabel said.

Haines Borough School District is treating the potential coronavirus spread like they would any flu season, superintendent Roy Getchell said. The school is reminding students to use proper hygiene, asking parents to keep children home when sick and taking extra care to have staff sanitize commonly touched surfaces like door handles, he said.

The only thing out of the ordinary is the heightened level of communication between the school and state and local government, Getchell said. Strengthening these lines of communication “is good preparation for any sort of situation.”

As the coronavirus continues to spread, entities including SEARHC, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will have current information about the disease and preventive measures available on their websites.

Governor Dunleavy said his administration has been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for more than a month and a half, since first learning of the disease’s spread in China. Members of the administration have been coordinating with the federal government and health officials in Atlanta and Washington, he said.

It’s only a matter of time before the disease reaches Alaska, Dunleavy said, and he said he “feels pretty good” about the state’s level of preparation.

The executive branch will begin meeting with legislators this week to discuss adding $4 million to the supplemental budget for the current fiscal year as well as accepting an additional $9 million in federal funding, Dunleavy said. The supplemental funding will allow the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to hire more staff to increase testing, preparation and response capabilities.

After a delay due to a malfunctioning part in test kits issued by the CDC, Alaska now has the ability to test for the virus, Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said Monday. She said the state has been testing since Thursday, Feb. 27 and, as of Monday, there are no documented cases of the disease.

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC is lifting restrictions on coronavirus testing. This means anyone will be eligible for testing if a doctor determines it is necessary. However, questions remain about whether test kit availability and lab capacity will be great enough to meet the demand for testing, according to New York Times reporting.

Alaska has testing centers in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Zink said. The biggest lag time between the test and the results is the time it takes to transport samples from more remote parts of the state, she said. Once a sample arrives at the lab, the department will have the results about four hours later. The Anchorage Daily News reported that the state plans to inform news media within an hour of a positive test result.

The populations at greatest risk are people with underlying lung or heart conditions and the elderly, Zink said. She said the department is working with healthcare facilities around the state to be able to isolate patients. Healthcare workers are currently able to provide patients with “supportive” care, but “no vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19 is available,” according to the CDC.

The best things individuals can do to prepare are to get a flu shot to decrease the number of flu cases local healthcare providers have to deal with in the coming months; and to observe good hygiene practices-wash their hands, cover their mouths, Zink said. If a person gets ill, they should stay home and isolate themselves from other family members. Individuals should stock up on supplies like prescription medication and food to allow themselves to stay home for up to 14 days if they get the coronavirus, she said.

Other communities around the state are taking action to prepare for the virus’ arrival. The Municipality of Skagway sent out a press release on the topic, listing steps the municipality is taking to prepare, steps the public can take to prepare and resources the Skagway clinic has at its disposal. Anchorage School District announced the cancellation of school-sponsored domestic travel through April. Ketchikan’s local emergency planning committee increased its meeting schedule to come up with a plan in preparation for cruise ship season.

Air carriers are also responding to the disease’s spread. Alaska Airlines is offering flexible travel options for guests who book new tickets from Feb. 27 through March 12 in response to the virus and is increasing cleaning and sanitation procedures on aircrafts including “suspending warm towel service in first class.” United Airlines announced that it will be decreasing the number of flights it offers in April due to a decrease in demand.

On Wednesday, the U.S. death toll from coronavirus cases had risen to 11- ten in Washington state and one in California. States and communities including Washington, Florida and Los Angeles County have declared states of emergency. At press time Wednesday, states with confirmed coronavirus cases include: Washington, California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Oregon, Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.