Alaska News

Alaska Coronavirus Q&A: masks, math, and the latest on a vaccine

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New research on masks suggests face coverings may significantly protect the wearer after all. Plus, the latest on a vaccine that may be just on the horizon.

As the pandemic wears on, we’re continuing to find answers to readers' virus-related questions. Have a question of your own? Fill out the form at the bottom of this article or do it here.

The science on masks has been changing since the pandemic began. What’s the latest?

Early this summer, much of the public health messaging around masks focused on how wearing a mask could prevent unknowingly infected people from spreading the coronavirus to anyone they came into contact with. Less evidence initially existed to suggest that wearing a mask could protect a COVID-free person from contracting the virus.

But the latest research on masks suggests that covering one’s face actually does protect the wearer as well as those they come into contact with, said Joe McLaughlin, the state’s chief epidemiologist, said during a call on Thursday.

That’s because wearing a mask lessens the amount of virus that is able to enter the mouth or nose, he explained.

“There’s good evidence to suggest that if you’re exposed to less of the virus, you have a decreased risk for getting a more serious infection, because it’s a lot easier for your body to fight off a small amount of the virus,” he said, citing two peer-reviewed studies published in September and late July.

The state continues to recommend that face coverings be worn in public places when six feet of distance is not possible between you and people not in your immediate households. This recommendation aligns with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Infection.


What is test positivity rate measuring and why is it an important metric?

The state’s test positivity rate has hovered around two or three percent in Alaska in the past few months, and finally fell to just under two percent this week. At a basic level, this number is measuring the percentage of all COVID-19 tests done in-state that come back with a positive result. Public health officials follow this metric closely because if a high percentage of positive tests means not enough testing is being done. Specifically, health officials say that if this number rises above 10 percent, it is clear testing needs to ramp up, because it’s highly unlikely that 10 percent of the population is actually infected.

Enough testing is important because it allows health officials to identify and contain outbreaks and prevent the virus from spreading. For most of the pandemic, Alaska has been mostly successful at testing wide and far: Alaska is currently ranked as the second most-tested state per capita according to a Johns Hopkins tracker, and has the fewest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita of any state.

(In a story over the weekend, “Alaska Built One of the Most Comprehensive Covid-19 Testing Operations in U.S.,” the Wall Street Journal reported that “While there have been a few outbreaks at fish-packing plants, Alaska has largely avoided the surge of positive cases and deaths many other states faced this summer. Alaska stands out as an example of a state that, in the absence of a centralized testing operation by the federal government, managed to cobble together a program that helped state and tribal officials track the outbreak.”)

Still, in August the state tested fewer people than it did in July, largely because of changing travel guidelines for nonresident travelers that significantly decreased the number of tests done at airports.

[Alaska does more COVID-19 tests with fewer positives than most other states. That doesn’t tell the whole story.]

How does the state know whether to count a death as a COVID-19 death or not?

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has dedicated an entire webpage to how it reports COVID-19 deaths. But it’s still confusing. At a recent town hall meeting, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said when the state reports a COVID-19 death, it’s because a clinician has listed COVID-19 on a death certificate as either a contributing or sole cause of death.

She added that the CDC has said that overall, only about 7% of the death certificates of people who’ve died with the virus have COVID-19 listed as the sole cause of death. The majority of people have had multiple contributing causes of death listed, she said, and this is to be expected.

“As a physician, it’s very rare that you only write one cause of death on a death certificate,” Zink said.

Even if patients don’t have underlying health conditions, they might have multiple causes -- like pneumonia or kidney failure that occurred soon after being hospitalized with the coronavirus -- listed on their death certificate, she explained.

[Related: No, the CDC didn’t reduce the nation’s coronavirus death toll]

How are officials in Alaska working on vaccine distribution here?

A team of state and tribal health officials have started work on distributing vaccinations here -- once they come. They say their priority is making sure vaccinations are safe and available to everyone who wants one.

Right now, if trials prove successful, there may be limited doses available as early as November, at least to health-care and other essential workers. The state’s existing immunization programs will distribute the vaccine. It encompasses 159 traditional providers -- pediatric and public-health clinics, for example -- as well as 161 tribal village clinics and seven clinics that receive only adult vaccines.

It’s currently not clear which of several vaccine candidates under development will be distributed. Each comes with different storage specifications: refrigeration; freezing; and ultracold, at -60 to -80 Celsius.

It’s likely people getting vaccinated will need two doses separated by three or four weeks. Research continues on just how long immunity is expected to last once you get a vaccination.

Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.