Alaska Department of Health spokesman Greg Wilkinson said there are 34 suspected or confirmed cases of adenovirus 14, an air- and liquid-born virus commonly associated with winter respiratory illnesses, though he suspects there are more unconfirmed cases.
"These are the only ones reported," he said. "We suspect there are many more cases."
State epidemiologist Dr. Beth Funk said the virus often appears as a common cold at first.
"The adenovirus in general is fairly common and can cause a bunch of things including cold-like symptoms (and) lower respiratory (illnesses) like bronchitis and pneumonia," she said. "Usually the illness is fairly mild."
Said Wilkinson: "Most people will be uncomfortable for a week or two but will go right through it. It is different to see up here in Alaska, but it's not uncommon in the lower 48."
Wilkinson said the woman who died suffered from chronic obstructive lung disease and that the seven people hospitalized all had pre-existing lung conditions.
One patient was flown to Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and put on a ventilator and several others have been transported to Ketchikan for treatment.
Wilkinson said the best way to prevent spreading the virus is for people to wash their hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds and to avoid contact with those were are sick.
"If your kids are sick, keep them home," he said. "If you're sick, stay home from work.
"Since it's a virus so there's nothing we can give you. It's something you have to ride through. Get bed rest and plenty of liquids."
The virus is most commonly spread through coughing and sneezing and can live on surfaces for a short period of time.
"It is really important to prevent transmission by practicing good respiratory hygiene," Funk said. "Cough into the crook of your arm and wash your hands right away after you sneeze, cough or blow your nose."
Health care providers can get cultures to send to state virology lab in Fairbanks at no expense to the patient, but the viral cultures would typically take a week or longer to come back from the laboratory, Funk said, so would most likely only provide a retrospective diagnosis.
Contrary to rumors no quarantines are in place and travel to Prince of Wales Island has not been restricted, Funk said. A spokesman for the Alaska Marine Highway said no ferries are scheduled in or out of Prince of Wales Island today and the schedule had nothing to do with the viral outbreak.
"There is not quarantine," Funk said. "We don't use that in this kind of situation."
Prior to the outbreak in Prince of Wales, there had been a few isolated cases of the adenovirus 14 in Alaska that were confirmed by the Fairbanks laboratory. But the state had never seen a cluster of adenovirus 14 outbreaks before, Funk said.
"Nationally it's been seen only rarely until the past year where there have been a number of outbreaks," she said. "It seems like it may be what we call an emerging infection."
In the past two years there have been outbreaks of the virus in Oregon, Washington and Texas.
Funk believes that the number of illnesses reported from the very ill is only capturing the "tip of the iceberg." As with other viruses, there are a range in the severity of the illness an individual may experience. Those suffering from other health problems should contact their health care providers immediately if they experience any of the adenovirus symptoms.
"If you've had other problems you want to give your health care provider a call and not try to tough it out at home," Funk said. "There have been deaths associated with this virus in other outbreaks. I wouldn't say (death) is common, but it's more of a serious illness than most of the other adenoviruses."