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More than 200 Alaska health workers ask governor to mandate mask wearing in crowded businesses

A statue of William Seward wears a mask outside the Alaska Capitol on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

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More than 200 physicians and health care workers across Alaska have signed a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, urging him to mandate the wearing of masks in businesses where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

“We are concerned about the recent and rapid increase in COVID-19 case counts in Alaska,” says the letter, written by Anchorage doctors Megan Ritter and Sarah Murphy.

“Recent medical studies and real-world evidence supports the use of masks to prevent the spread of the virus,” the letter says.

The letter stipulates that mask wearing should be required in businesses open to the public “where 6-foot distancing is unrealistic.”

“The takeaway is this,” the letter says. “A sick person wearing a mask will spread fewer viral particles. A healthy person wearing a mask will have some protection from sick people around them. The combination of both people wearing masks provides the greatest amount of protection.”

The plea comes during a recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the state, just weeks after restrictions on businesses were lifted in response to low case counts. On Wednesday, the state reported 20 new cases among Alaska residents, and virus clusters have been documented in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula. The state also confirmed its 11th death associated with the virus on Tuesday.

Ritter is a pathologist who has lived in Anchorage for 18 years and is the medical director at the Blood Bank of Alaska. She and Murphy, a family medicine physician at Vera Whole Health in Anchorage, wrote the letter last week.

“We did this phenomenal job of keeping the transmission of the virus down in Alaska during the lockdown,” she said in an interview, praising the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and the governor for swift actions curbing the virus early on.

“But it turns out that in the absence of a requirement, recommendations are not being followed,” she said.

When cases started going up last week, Ritter said, she contacted Murphy to say, “We have to do something.”

On Friday, they sent the letter to all the doctors and nurses in Alaska they knew who might be interested in signing. By Tuesday, the letter had garnered more than 200 signatures and counting.

“I anticipate more,” Murphy said.

She added that conversations around mask wearing have been confusing since the beginning of the pandemic because “initially, we were told that masks were not helpful.”

She said scientists and doctors were at first trying to figure out whether cloth masks protect the user — which, for the most part, they don’t, she said.

“But now we’ve shifted our focus to, ‘Can masks prevent the spread of the virus?’ And the answer is yes. So it becomes an act of solidarity,” she said. “You may not be at risk, but you’re protecting the people who are elderly, or immunocompromised.”

A number of states have required mask wearing in public places. In Alaska, wearing a mask in public places has been strongly encouraged but not required.

“I think unfortunately, mask wearing has become really politicized," Murphy said. "People say, ‘Don’t take away my freedom.’ But that makes me think we could actually have more freedom if we all wear masks to keep each other safe.”

Asked for comment on the letter, Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner in an email Tuesday referred to statements the governor made during a community briefing last week.

“Right now, we’re not mandating it,” Dunleavy said at the time. “We know that there are some businesses that mandate it. And we would ask Alaskans to respect those business rules.”

“We’re asking Alaskans to take serious consideration to wearing masks, especially when you’re in a congregate area," he said.

Dunleavy added that while there is no mandate currently, “We’ll keep an eye on this, and see what happens with our case counts and numbers."

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