One misconception about COVID-19 is that children aren’t at risk of serious illness. Not so, says state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. The state’s top medical team wants Alaskans to remain informed and resolute this winter — and things will get better. “It’s the dark before the dawn,” says Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. (ADHSS image)

As the summer winds down, Alaska is seeing a decrease in the rate of new coronavirus infections across the state — but it doesn’t mean the pandemic is ending. Far from it. Alaska’s top medical team is urging residents to remain diligent heading into fall and winter, to resist widespread misinformation about the virus, and to hold fast against mounting fatigue over the pandemic.

Over the last week, the number of non-resident infections in Alaska has dropped significantly, to only one or zero per day. This doesn’t mean we’ve whipped COVID-19 in Alaska. It means that the fishing season has just about wrapped up, and seafood processors and other essential industries that imported workers in the summer are sending them home.

Alaska residents are still becoming infected at around 100 new cases per day. And there is a lot of misinformation going around.

“We’re hearing more and more ‘I don’t trust the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), I don’t trust the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but I trust this YouTube video I just watched on Facebook,” said Coleman Cutchins, a pharmacist with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services.

“Just understanding that these are reliable sources. And with that, the understanding that with most diseases we have a decade or so of studying them to make recommendations and guidelines. With covid, we’ve had to come up with them really fast,” he said.

Cutchins says that official recommendations have changed as researchers accumulated more data. This was evident when the FDA first gave an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the drug hydroxychloroquine back in February, but later rescinded it. 

It has been confusing at times. Cutchins and other members of the department’s Coronavirus HUB team discussed the role misinformation plays in the fight against the pandemic, among other topics, in their weekly forum with the state’s media on Thursday (9-10-20).

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the head of Alaska Section of Epidemiology, pushed back against misinformation promoted by the White House and elsewhere, that COVID-19 was of little risk to children.

“I think one of the other big misperceptions is that children and young adults don’t get severely ill from covid. And that’s just not true — they can,” said McLaughlin, referring to national statistics. “There have been quite a number of pediatric hospitalizations and deaths.”

On the other end of the spectrum, McLaughlin offered information that used to be considered incorrect, but now appears true: That masks protect both the wearers and those around them.

“There’s good evidence now to suggest that if you’re exposed to less of the virus, you’re at a decreased chance of getting a more serious infection,” McLaughlin said. “Because it’s a lot easier for your body to fight off a small amount of the virus than a large amount of the virus right away.”

McLaughlin also referred to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control suggesting that dining out in restaurants and bars increased someone’s risk of contracting the virus, since wearing masks in those environments was impractical.

The speed that everything is moving and the variability of the official recommendations has contributed to a lack of faith by some members of the public. The HUB team seems to get this: They’re asking Alaskans to be responsive to the best information available at the moment. The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, says it’s meant to be enlightening — not frightening.

“I think in medicine we’ve really moved to this different place of shared decision-making with patients over the last ten years, ‘Here’s my information and what’s there,'” Zink said. “And the same thing is happening in public health right now, where we have lots of citizen-scientists who are actively engaged. And so us sharing this information is not to scare people, not to frighten people — it’s there to keep them informed. I think sometimes we get pushback that we’re trying to scare or frighten, when we’re trying to provide tools and resources so that Alaskans can make decisions about their own health, and can have that shared decision-making with us.”

Zink said that much of the state’s fight against the pandemic hasn’t been obvious to the public: Ramping up the testing capacity of the state lab from 300 to 3,000 tests per day; developing a digital network to track data (instead of faxes), and preparing for the eventual introduction of a covid vaccine. 

She wants Alaskans to hang tough.

“I think fatigue of covid is huge, and so what ways can we engage the public to make sure that they’re still taking it seriously, making sure they still get tested if they have symptoms,” said Zink. “I keep feeling like this is the dark before the dawn. We still have fall and winter to get through, but there’s a lot of hope on the horizon. But we have to get through this winter, and how do we keep up that strength? There’s a lot of conversation happening around that.”