As coronavirus cases continue to climb in Alaska, public health officials have a better picture of how the disease is spreading in the state — and it points to our collective behavior. But modifying or changing risky behavior is not hard, and could go a long way toward bringing the pandemic under control.
In the week of July 12, the total number of coronavirus cases in Alaska rose by over a quarter — that’s in just one week alone. While there were three major outbreaks in seafood processors, they were more or less contained on the ships or in the plants where they occurred.
By far, the steady growth in Alaska’s case count has come from residents. Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, just that morning had tacked a quote from the Journal of the American Medical Association to her wall. She shared it with the state’s other top doctors and media during a conference call.
“Communicable diseases do not respect boundaries, but they also do not affect all members of our society equally,” she said, reading from the quote. “And I think this just highlights that again, and how this disease does not respect boundaries. It’s not an us-or-them disease, it’s all of us.”
Zink said that where COVID-19 is occurring in Alaskan communities — and residents are not wearing masks and practicing social distancing — “We are expecting it to continue to move between people.”
From the Alaska DHSS Weekly Case Summary for July 12:
· Total cases in Alaska residents have risen by more than a quarter in this week alone
· We see community transmission occurring in almost every business type that involves in-person interaction
· Alaskans are acquiring the virus from many types of social gatherings: backyard barbecues, funerals, weddings, children’s sporting events, camps, churches and any time groups gather with others outside their household
· Fairbanks has had very high rates of test positivity, reflecting widespread community transmission
· The majority of new cases are among Alaskans aged 20-29, with cases among Alaskans in their 20s and 30s rising sharply
· Most nonresident cases have been identified before the person had significant community interaction, so most new cases in Alaskans are acquired from other Alaskans who have not traveled
· Hospital capacity remains adequate
· With current rates of physical distancing, face covering use and other measures to prevent transmission, cases are expected to continue to rise rapidly
· Alaskans should avoid gatherings with non-household members, wear face coverings in public, keep six feet of distance from non household members and practice good hand hygiene to slow transmission of COVID-19
And the coronavirus is moving among residents who have been here all along, hunkered down since March. The difference is our behavior then and now. In its case summary for the week of July 12, the Department of Health and Social Services says most new infections in Alaska are acquired from other Alaskans who haven’t traveled. The disease is being spread at “backyard barbecues, funerals, weddings, children’s sporting events, camps, churches and any time groups gather with others outside their household.”
Certainly, no one expected the state’s infection rate to stay flat or decline after Gov. Mike Dunleavy allowed a progressive reopening of businesses at the end of May — but is this the spike doctors warned us about, or something more?
Dr. Zink believes there is no way to isolate Alaska as a state from national trends. This is Zink, followed by Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist.
Zink – As we’ve seen a resurgence of cases in the Lower 48, we have seen cases up here. I think we’ve all hoped we wouldn’t see as many cases, but it really depends on what happens nationally and internationally, and in general we do expect more cases if people are mixing together, in close contact, not wearing facial coverings when they’re near other people. At our current projections, we would expect cases to continue to climb if Alaskans don’t change the way they’re interacting regarding covid. Dr. McLaughlin?
McLaughlin – I know everybody would like to have a crystal ball with this particular epidemic, but we don’t. So what we knew is that when restrictions were easing up, we knew we were going to see more cases. We just didn’t know how many.
Covid’s exceptional ability to spread is causing medical experts to retool some of their thinking about risk. Contact tracers, for example, now try to identify anyone who’s been within 6-feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, regardless of whether one or both were wearing masks. The DHSS sees “community transmission occurring in almost every business type that involves in-person interaction.” Dr. McLaughlin says personal decisions may play a larger role in controlling coronavirus from now on.
“If you’re about to enter into a public place and you look inside and it’s really crowded, I probably wouldn’t go in unless you absolutely had to,” he said.
Other data from the DHSS weekly report indicate that the hot spot in Alaska has now shifted to Fairbanks, which has the highest infection rate, and also the state’s most recent death. The demographics of covid are also shifting, with the majority of new cases in the state occurring in people between the ages of 20-29, which Dr. Zink says is the reason why hospitalizations are not increasing at the same rate as infections — a good thing, since there is not much excess capacity in Alaska’s hospitals even under normal conditions.
Perhaps hoping for some buy-in from this crowd, Zink called contact tracing a “team sport,” and as always, she encouraged small social circles, hand washing, and face coverings, saying “You’re on the front lines, and we on epi-team are the coaches.”