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As Alaska continues to open, here’s what you can do to stay safe and healthy

A notice on the floor of Grizzly Gifts reminds customers to space apart near the cash register on April 27, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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As Alaska reopens, experts are still urging caution when it comes to COVID-19.

“The virus hasn’t gone away,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer with the Anchorage Health Department. “The vast majority of us are still susceptible.”

While restaurants and shops open their doors and people head out of the house more often, there are some basic things you can do to protect yourself and others against the disease.

Maybe the advice has started to sound repetitive, but the steady drumbeat about good personal hygiene and continued physical distancing carries on for a reason: Those measures have worked at slowing the spread of COVID-19, experts say.

Not following those physical distancing guidelines could put people “in the danger zone,” Chandler said.

“I think it’s totally natural for people to think, ‘Restrictions are being lifted and therefore we’re safer,' " said Dr. Mark Simon, an emergency physician at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

But Simon said it’s important to keep up all of the things that helped Alaska flatten the curve in the first place.

People should think about each of their interactions as having a certain degree of risk, Simon said. Those interactions have a degree of risk to you, to the person you’re interacting with and to your overall community. If you’re heading out to walk with friends, maybe you’ll walk farther apart than normal, or maybe the group will be smaller, Simon said.

Creativity is important right now, Simon said. Social distancing is likely one of the best ways to cut down on virus transmission, and also has “the most room for creativity in terms of how you can get on with living your life and finding those things that bring you joy,” he said.

There’s an expectation that disease transmission will increase as people begin to leave their homes more, Simon said, but no one knows how much it will be.

“By having as many people continue to adopt these measures as much as possible, we will minimize what our communities see and what our state sees,” Simon said.

There are still community-transmitted cases of the virus in Alaska, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, told reporters Monday. It would take 28 days with “really adequate testing” and no community cases to say there isn’t community transmission.

So, it’s important to continue limiting the number of people you interact with in person.

“If you couldn’t name everyone you’ve spent more than 10 minutes with in the last week, then you’re probably spending too much time with too many people,” Zink said.

In addition to physical distancing, hand and face hygiene continues to be important. Soap and water break up the fatty layer that encloses the ribonucleic acid of the virus, killing it, Zink said during a "Talk of Alaska” segment on Alaska Public Media on Tuesday.

When you wash your hands after you touch your face, you also protect others — you’re not accidentally spreading the coronavirus somewhere for another person to pick up, Simon said.

Bikers, walkers, runners and motorists spread out on the knoll above Point Woronzof, Sunday April 26, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

There are some tricky things about the contagiousness of COVID-19, Zink said. The time when someone has the largest viral load — when they can spread the most virus to others — is at the beginning of the illness, often before they even feel sick.

That’s why wearing cloth face coverings and staying at least 6 feet from other people are critical parts of COVID-19 management. It’s hard to know if you’re spreading the virus to others, because you may not even know if you’re sick in the first place, Zink said.

“Some people spit a little bit when they talk, when people sneeze or cough, those little micro droplets of that disease can be projected,” Zink said.

The point is to keep those little droplets from springing onto surfaces in grocery stores, tables at restaurants and other places. The cloth face coverings aren’t great for protecting you personally, but they’ll keep your droplets from spraying out. If you wear a face covering and everyone else does too, those droplets are less likely to spread.

There are also things you can do in your own environment to curb the virus, Zink said Tuesday. How long the virus lives somewhere can depend a lot on the type of surface, the humidity around it and the temperature, Zink said.

Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces can kill the virus in seconds. Heat can also kill the virus, and in general, the virus can’t live longer than 72 hours on a surface.

Zink said she thoroughly cleans her groceries when she brings them home. Filling up the sink with warm water and a non-soap product, she cleans her vegetables before stowing them in the fridge. She also wipes down other groceries before putting them on the shelves.

Face coverings should be snug and have multiple fabric layers, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The cloth coverings are different from surgical masks and N95 masks, which health care workers need during the outbreak, according to the CDC.

Putting your fabric masks in a washing machine is fine for cleaning them, which you should do “routinely,” according to the CDC. And, when you take off the covering, try not to touch your face.

Dawn Samuelson shows one of her blueberry-print face coverings as drops off other masks she made for the Alaska Mask Makers effort on April 13, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Face coverings aren’t a replacement for other efforts, Zink said, like hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces and physical distancing. The approach to stemming spread is layered.

This advice applies if you’re well. But what happens if you do end up sick?

You should stay home — except for seeking medical care — and stay away from other people, according to the CDC. That means you’ll need to stay in a separate room from others in your house and use a different bathroom if you can.

If you end up around others while sick, it’s important to wear a cloth face covering. You should be washing your hands often and disinfecting surfaces around the house. Also, it’s important to call your medical provider before heading in, and continue to stay in touch with them throughout the illness, according to the CDC’s guidelines.

If you are showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should also call your provider and ask about getting testing for the disease.

[Clarification: A previous version of this story, based on what Dr. Anne Zink said in a “Talk of Alaska” segment, said that she washes her produce in soapy warm water. Zink later clarified through a spokesman that while she refers to the product she uses as “soap” at home, it’s a non-soap product.]

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