Three elders, one employee test positive for COVID-19 in Anchorage Pioneer Home

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

While the Dunleavy administration and its allies have sought to heap political pressure Anchorage’s mayor and teachers for their efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 has made its way into the state-run senior care center in Anchorage.

The state reported today that three elder residents and one employee at the Anchorage Pioneer Home have tested positive for COVID-19. The source of the infection in the center, which has had its doors closed to family visits since the beginning of the pandemic, is unknown and under investigation.

“Upon being notified about the first case of a resident, Alaska Pioneer Home leadership immediately began working with the DHSS Division of Public Health, Section of Epidemiology to respond to the case, identify any other cases and take additional steps to prevent further spread of the disease,” explains a news release from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “After the initial resident case was identified yesterday afternoon, the three additional cases were identified during testing of residents and staff.”

The news release outlines its plans to respond to the outbreak, which marks the first time a resident of the Alaska Pioneer Home system has tested positive for the virus, that includes isolation for the infected, the employee has been sent home, a “thorough sanitizing of resident rooms” and common areas in the affected wing and additional changes to limit the flow of people in and out of the building.

It says that the three elders who are in isolation will “have, as much as possible, dedicated staffing” to limit the spread of the virus and that all other residents in the affected wing have been tested and “testing of residents in other parts of the home is underway.”

The Anchorage Pioneer Home has capacity for 168 elders that, according to the state’s website, “include many of the great pioneers of the first half of the 20th century including homesteaders, miners and bush pilots.” The oldest resident is 104.

The state announced plans to reopen family visits to the Alaska Pioneer Homes late last month but said that it would keep its doors closed to visits to the Anchorage and Fairbanks homes, which are both in the midst of spiking cases. The state operates six Pioneer Homes that provide varying levels of care—including care for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—to Alaska residents 60 and up.

The plans to reopen the Pioneer Homes has been a major point of concern with Alaska Legislators and others, who’ve worried that such plans would put seniors—who are among the most at-risk to the virus—in harm’s way.

The House State Affairs Committee and others have held several hearings in the last month about workplace safety in Alaska, including at the Alaska Pioneer Homes, but state officials have refused to participate in such hearings.

House State Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Zack Fields, whose district includes the Anchorage Pioneer Home, said he was shocked and saddened to hear the news. He said he’s been frustrated the state has refused to participate in the hearings, which have highlighted meaningful measures that could be taken to reduce the risk that the virus is transmitted such as masks, upgraded air filters and the introduction of outside air.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re listening to the experts,” he said. “Maybe what’s the most troubling is–with a few exceptions–they’re unaware of the science. That’s what I find really baffling and horrifying. … That’s all eminently doable. It’s fairly easy to mitigate the risk so why can’t they do it?”

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