Remote But Not Removed, Alaska Freezes Out COVID-19
The layover would last five hours. Some cried. Most cheered.
Kalitta Air 4371, with service to March Air Reserve Base in California, landed to refuel in Anchorage on the night of Jan 29. The cargo plane had been hastily converted to accommodate passengers and commissioned by the State Department to bring 201 Americans home. And while planes landing safely seldom make the news and delays rarely make anyone happy, this one did both. It came from Wuhan.
The passengers kept cheering as the 747 taxied to the gate. At that time, World Health Organization officials still insisted that human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus seemed unlikely, and they wouldn’t declare a global health pandemic for another 42 days. But listening and watching from his home office, Alaska’s chief executive came to his own conclusion.
“You just knew something was up,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy told RealClearPolitics of the cheering expats and crying diplomatic staff. “This isn’t a cold. This isn’t the ordinary flu.”
Medical professionals were screening the passengers one by one when Dunleavy realized it was a matter of time before the virus would come to the last frontier. “We just wanted to do everything we could to prepare,” he explained. “We stood up, our response, right after that.”
Much of that responsibility went to Adam Crum, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The State Department had called on Saturday. The governor gave the go ahead. Crum had four days to prepare, “but really we didn't know much about this virus at all at that point in time,” he recalled.
So, they took every precaution, turning a terminal at Ted Stevens International Airport into an impromptu screening station: negative pressure systems, first responders geared head to toe in personal protective equipment, and hospital beds ready to go.
The cheers were also the first thing Crum heard, and it was a relief. Rumors had circulated once news broke of the flight from Wuhan that “we were letting a ‘death plane’ land in Alaska filled with the plague.” No one knew the exact nature of the virus, let alone the mortality statistics. The onboard jubilation was an early sign that their worst fears wouldn’t be met.
Among the most extreme contingency plans: How would Alaska store dead bodies of Americans coming back from Wuhan with the state’s already limited morgue capacity? Officials prepared to use cold storage warehouses at the Department of Fish and Game and Department of Natural Resources.
The freezers stayed empty. None of the passengers needed emergency medical care either, except for one woman who had broken her hand boarding the plane. Still, Crum and his team often began conversations with the Centers for Disease Control by warning that “Alaska has a very delicate health care system.”
Alaska has mirrored many of the actions taken by states in the Lower 48. There are stay-at-home orders and schools are out for the rest of the year, and everything from bars to bingo halls are closed. The governor also went farther with an emergency order: Anyone entering the state must declare a designated quarantine location and self-isolate for 14 days. Ignoring that edict is a Class-A misdemeanor that could come with a $25,000 penalty or a year in jail.
And, so far, it has worked. This week Alaska has only 329 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“There is no doubt that a major contributor to Alaska’s lower case counts to date is the fact that our state and local leaders, particularly Gov. Dunleavy, took decisive action early to implement broad community mitigation interventions,” wrote state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin.
But the big advantage of Alaska -- its 663 million square miles and fewer than 1 million people -- is also its biggest disadvantage. Villages are isolated, Crum explained, but people there are densely packed together. Alaska has nearly double the national average of homes defined as overcrowded. “While we can keep it isolated,” Crum said of the virus, “if it finds its way into some of these communities, it would spread like wildfire.”
The state, in good times, has hospital capacity for 2% of the population, and Alaskans have a saying that there is just a week’s supply of groceries within its borders at any given moment. This makes for a different pandemic experience than that of other states. So do the snow machines and bush planes ferrying medical supplies and personnel to the farthest north, east, and west corners of the country.
Bad luck has also made for good pandemic preparation. Alaska has a history of tuberculosis outbreaks and regularly battles sexually transmitted infections. “And so,” Crum explained, “our epidemiologist teams are well versed with public health nurses to do contact tracing and getting into small areas to find out what exactly is going on.”
Alaska is also drawing from its own grim institutional memory of the great influenza outbreak that swept the world a century ago. “We have villages that existed at 1918 that don't exist anymore because of the Spanish flu,” Dunleavy explained. His team knows the history. According to University of Alaska professor Katherine Ringsmuth, “More people per capita died from influenza in Alaska than almost anywhere else in the world.”
“Fake news” was a thing back then, too. Nothing to see here, the Anchorage Daily Times assured its readers back in 1918: “Don’t be alarmed,” it proclaimed, “over influenza in Anchorage.” Then, when it became clear that alarm was just the right response, pleas came from Alaska to Congress for relief – pleas that fell on deaf ears: A $200,000 request was cut in half by the Senate and then voted down by the House.
But the money flows north without impediment this time, and the governor is hell-bent on keeping a second tragic chapter from being written. Abbott testing machines are being delivered via snow machines, and Alaska feels better about its preparations for this pandemic. Dunleavy is not afraid. After all, this state is populated by the most unconventional of citizens — global health crisis be damned. There is a reason, they say, why people move to a frozen place, an unbroken motivation for living in Secretary William Seward's infamous “icebox.”
The White House has not forgotten the nation’s northernmost citizens. The administration would rather let them figure out the particulars while Washington figures the broad strokes.
This works for Mike Dunleavy. But the Republican governor won’t go as far as his colleagues. The state parks remain open. “We are a free people in this country,” he said. “We believe that in Alaska we are an even a freer people, and so to be able to go out and do what you want, as long as you stay six feet away from others, is fine.”
Salmon season is just around the corner, and the governor is planning on how to let fisherman reap the harvest while following federal social distance guidelines.