While many questions remain about COVID-19, Alaskan medical professionals explain the science behind the virus

Published: May. 26, 2020 at 8:09 PM AKDT
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As Alaska reopens, many questions remain about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and how to treat it.

A panel of medical professionals in the state came together for the governor’s second town hall on COVID-19 to explain some of the science behind the virus. One of the top questions Alaskans had was how to treat it and is the “anti-malarial drug” effective at preventing the virus.

“There are currently no FDA approved drugs for the treatment of COVID-19,” Coleman Cutchins, state pharmacist with DHSS, said. Hydroxychloroquine has received some press off and on and it has been looked at in some drug studies, and so far, none of those drug studies have shown a benefit, and there has been some risk.”

While providers are not prevented from using hydroxychloroquine, Cutchins said there is more risk than merit for the drug in treating COVID-19. The state does have a supply of Remdesivir, another drug that has been used in hospitalized patients in Hong Kong. It is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration but it does have an emergency authorization that allows limited use, Cutchins said. Remdesivir is available in Alaska but is offered only to hospitalized patients. Alaska has a low rate of hospitalized patients, with less than 50 people statewide.

Health officials say they can use Remdesivir on “severely ill patients” but that they don’t currently have a cohort of cases that meet that criterion.

The state has been collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to give to others suffering from the virus, but it has only been used for one patient in the state to date, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said.

Antibody testing in Alaska

DHSS Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said there was some concern about the reliability of tests for antibodies, especially when they are used on individuals within communities that have a low rate of COVID-19. The tests are actually most useful for understanding how many people have actually had the virus, but are not being used as a diagnostic, Dr. McLaughlin said.

The state has several different methods for diagnosing COVID-19. The most reliable test for asymptomatic individuals or for people who are not yet asymptomatic is the nasopharyngeal swabs which can identify the virus a week before symptoms develop.

“There’s actually some pretty good data to indicate that swabs that go maybe not quite as far as the nasopharyngeal — which is in the very back of the nose — but more in the middle of the nose are pretty reliable as well,” Dr. McLaughlin said.

"An act of kindness” to wear a mask

Epidemiologist Anna Frick said community members are advised to follow a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline to wear a cloth face covering. The covering doesn’t have to be a formal mask or N95 but should prevent droplets of saliva or mucus from spreading to others. Frick said even asymptomatic people can pass on the virus and that a covering could still act as a barrier for transmitting COVID-19.

“It’s an act of kindness to keep it on to be able to minimize the spread to others,” Dr. Zink said.

Another act of kindness: limiting your interactions with others.

“If it’s more than you can remember than you may be seeing too many people,” Dr. Zink said.

State of the state COVID-19 response

Hospitals throughout the state are still limiting visitation. Chief Medical Officer at Providence Alaska Medical Center Dr. Michael Bernstein said there are few allowances for patients to have visitors. Those exceptions include women in labor, some pediatric care, end of life care and some surgical patients.

In more rural areas, there are additional reasons to allow a visitor to accompany a patient. Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., said visitors may also be necessary for elders who don’t speak English.

A large proportion of cases in Alaska are what Dr. McLaughlin calls “travel associated.” These are cases where an individual contracted the virus outside of the state but was diagnosed within the state.

More deadly than the flu

The novel coronavirus is not just deadlier than the flu but it’s more contagious, the medical professionals said.

“There was never this degree of fear,” Intensive Care Physician Dr. Lior Dolgonos said. “And there was never this degree of transmission through the community.”

There are vaccine candidates in development and Dr. McLaughlin said there is some hope that the most promising candidates could be available in a limited capacity as early as this year.

A livestream of the panel can be watched at

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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