Dr. Elliot Bruhl (at right) and Maegan Bosak (middle), SEARHC communications director, hold a press conference with Daily Sitka Sentinel reporters Shannon Haugland and Henry Colt. A practicing physician in Sitka for many years, Bruhl doesn’t downplay the hazard of the COVID-19 virus, but he feels the response has to be proportionate to the risk. “The public is part of the response,” he says, of all the advice to wash hands, etc. And everyone should comply, for the safety of those most at risk. “We have to trust each other,” he says. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a Public Health Disaster Emergency in the state on Wednesday (3-11-20), and submitted $4 million dollars in supplemental funding to help prepare for the covid-19 virus.

The move remains precautionary: Although there have been just under 700 confirmed cases in the United States, none have been reported in Alaska.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently met with SEARHC chief medical officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl to discuss the coronavirus, and its implications for the health of area residents.   

One thing is clear: When the covid-19 outbreak has run its course, people are going to be a lot more conscientious about how we spread disease around.

“So most of the colds that we encounter throughout our lives are coronaviruses,” Bruhl said. “It’s a huge group of viruses — there are over 70 that are part of the viruses that cause common colds. The others are rhinoviruses. However, this is a unique coronavirus that in the past has infected animals — thought most likely bats — because its very similar to the SARS and MERS viruses that created epidemics a few years ago. It spreads about as easily as influenza.”

I’m sitting in the office of Sitka’s top doc, Elliot Bruhl, with two reporters from the Sitka Sentinel. There is an enormous bottle of hand sanitizer on the table. Half in jest, we fist-bump rather than shake hands, because although covid-19 is making its way around the globe, it’s not here yet.

Before Bruhl was hired last year as the chief medical officer for SEARHC, he worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. And before that, he was a family practitioner for many years in Sitka.

I asked him to talk about the covid-19 coronavirus like he was talking to a patient. The statistics don’t really mean that much to most people. I wanted to understand why world health officials were concerned by this runaway cold virus.

“One of the reasons it’s been difficult for people throughout the world to control this virus is that it appears that people do ‘shed’ the virus for a while before they become ill,” said Bruhl. “It’s not precisely known, but it’s probably somewhere between five and 10 days before people actually become ill. So that means there’s a potential for people to share it with others before they actually become ill.”

This is why everyone is leaning into hand-washing and covering coughs, and taking extra pains to clean public spaces. Just being around a sick person won’t make someone sick: It’s the germs that they leave behind on doorknobs, elevator buttons, and countertops that we come into contact with — usually through our mouth, nose, and eyes — that infect us.

For most people, a case of covid-19 will feel like ordinary influenza — no big deal, right? Bruhl says ordinary influenza is a big deal. It’s just the virus we know.

“Influenza is a virus that we know is here, and which is a very significant health hazard for us,” said Bruhl. “Since October of this year, the flu virus has killed an estimated 18,000 – 30,000 people in the United States.”

As of Wednesday afternoon (3-11-20) the covid-19 virus has accounted less than 5,000 deaths worldwide.

Still, there is a vaccine for influenza — and none for covid-19, which increases the risks of the disease for vulnerable populations like the elderly, or those with chronic illness. So why aren’t we locking down the town? Bruhl says we have to balance the response in proportion to the risks.

“I think it’s understandable that people are feeling fearful because this is something new, and because of the fact that it is a virus that is more dangerous than influenza,” Bruhl said. “However, even in the lower 48 where this has been detected, most people in this country are not being exposed to this virus. The numbers are fairly small. The potential is that it could grow, and the right thing for us to do as people in the medical field and the public health field is to monitor that situation, and escalate our response to it in a way that is medically sound, and includes the public so that they understand what the true risks are.”

Bruhl says all the precautionary recommendations we’re hearing are meant to be helpful, and not intrusive. He is willing to travel on planes, but he’s going to wipe down his seat and tray table with disinfectant — he and his wife usually do that anyway. “The public is part of the response,” he said. Bruhl does not want to waste limited resources fighting panic, rather than disease. “We have to trust each other.”