As COVID-19 case count rises to 235, state suspends in-person schooling through school year and mandates social distancing, intrastate travel limits through April 21

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Watch the replay of tonight's press conference on the Channel 2 Facebook page. Updates will be shared on the Channel 2 Newshour and Late Edition.

The State of Alaska on Thursday extended its suspension of in-person schooling, keeping kids out of schools through the end of the school year, and lengthened the timeline for current mandates regarding intrastate travel and social distancing.

The update comes after the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported earlier Thursday that 49 people have recovered from coronavirus, and cumulative hospitalizations remain at 27 total to date.

Nine new cases in Alaska bring the state total to 235. Of the new cases, three are male and six are female; five are in Anchorage, one is from Kenai, two are out of Fairbanks and one person is from Wasilla. There have been seven coronavirus-related fatalities thus far. One case that's not part of the nine new cases is in a long-term care facility.

A total of 7,223 tests have been administered thus far, the state said, adding that antibody testing is not on the table as of now after concerns arose about their accuracy.

"We want to keep moving where the puck is going and not just where it's at," said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, "but we want to make sure we're doing it in a safe way."

Zink said there's no magic number for testing, but that researchers do know the virus can expand exponentially. Testing is being pushed not just for individuals, she said, but also for the health and safety of anyone who may have come into contact with those people to prevent a rapid spread of the virus.

In addition to getting more testing machines and supplies, personal protective equipment resources are still being gathered, with those numbers increasing by the day.

"We've been kind of operating in Plan B for a while," Zink said. "We've known this is a world pandemic. We've known the federal supply is not enough to supply the entire country. But we want to stay ahead of this."

Some 250,000 masks were recently donated by Providence Hospital for rural areas, Zink said, with many hospitals having secured additional personal protective equipment. President Donald Trump also approved the state's disaster declaration Thursday so that federal funds will be available to state, tribal, and eligible local governments, along with certain private nonprofits, for emergency protective measures.

[RELATED: 9 new cases of COVID-19 announced, 49 people have recovered]

Several extensions to significant mandates for Alaska specifically were also implemented Thursday. In-class schooling, previously suspended, will remain as such through the end of the year for all schools, the state said. A school district normally can only carry over 10 percent of funding from one school year to the next, but the state will allow schools to carry over more than ten percent in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

As for other extensions, elective oral health procedures are suspended until the related mandate is rescinded. Social distancing is now mandated through April 21 and will be reevaluated as the date nears. Limits on intrastate travel are also in place through April 21, and will be reevaluated as well.

"We want to make sure we continue the good work Alaskans are doing," said DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum.

When asked about social distancing, and enforcing related mandates as people recreate outside, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said a big factor is people "policing themselves," and that the state doesn't yet feel the need to cite people for not following coronavirus-related health mandates. Additionally, as long as you maintain social distancing, he said, you may leave your home community to recreate in a nearby location.

"This is going to help us get through the long days and weeks of having to change our lives significantly," he said. "We're a free society. We do best when we understand the urgency of it. So far, from our perspective, Alaska is doing pretty good. Can we do better? We can always do better, but that doesn't mean the state should be chasing people around. We don't believe that's necessary at this point."

Dunleavy also said a team is working on how to handle the commercial fishing season. That team, he said, is working with local leaders and businesses to see if the season can indeed take place.

"Once we get through that process," he said, "we can let folks know if activity is going to take place in the area, and if so, under what conditions."

Regarding unemployment, one hundred staff members are being added to help process unemployment claims, which includes 36,211 unemployment insurance claims. The hope is that people receive checks within seven to 10 days of filing is the hope, according to officials.

Thursday's briefing comes after an update the evening before, during which multiple questions were asked about a decision to include surgical abortions in a ban on elective surgeries, which several lawmakers said was politically-motivated move. Officials, including the governor, said the intent all around is to continue to build up stores of personal protective equipment, and to prepare healthcare workers and facilities for a potential surge in cases.

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