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'It’s going to test the resilience of Alaska’: Health experts worry about the pandemic winter ahead

  • Author: Annie Berman
  • Updated: October 18, 2020
  • Published October 17, 2020

Anchorage from Flattop Mountain. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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As temperatures drop, Alaska’s COVID-19 cases are rising.

Health officials say that while Alaska successfully weathered a surge in late July, this time feels different. That’s partly because of the change in seasons: As temperatures drop, Alaskans are spending much more time indoors, which is where the virus spreads most easily.

“This fall and winter, I’m concerned, are going to be hard,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said on a call with reporters last week. “It’s going to test the resilience of Alaska.”

This past week, Alaska set a record for the most new coronavirus infections in a single day, and last Friday, the average percentage of tests that came back positive climbed above 5% for the first time. Daily case counts have been in the triple digits for more than three weeks, and most communities across the state now find themselves in the highest alert category, defined as more than 10 cases per 100,000 people.

While state data shows that hospital capacity has so far remained steady, and the state’s per capita death rate also remains among the lowest in the nation, state health officials have expressed concern about the rapid rise in cases heading into winter.

It’s a problem that is not going away anytime soon, especially in Alaska. The days are only going to get shorter and colder.

“Over the summer, when people saw (cases) going up, there was a conscious effort to do more things outside and distance better,” said Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department.

“Even over Labor Day, we didn’t see a spike associated with it that I was worried with. But now as we move past that, the days are getting shorter, it’s getting cooler and there’s more mixing inside. And it feels to me that that’s what the big driver is,” Johnston said.

Worries over imperfect ‘bubbles’

One major challenge heading into winter is the changing nature of how the virus is spreading, state health officials say.

While outbreaks earlier this summer were largely tied to clearly defined outbreaks — at a transitional care center, at seafood processing plants and aboard trawlers, and those tied to specific businesses — now "there’s just lots of activity in lots of areas and lots of sectors,” said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state. “There is a lot more (virus) going around in the community.”

In response, state and local officials last week called into the question the success of “social bubbles,” the small friend-and-family groups that some Alaskans have been sticking to as a way to stay sane and socialize safely.

Bubbles only work if they’re adhered to fairly strictly, Johnston said.

With some children returning to school and many adults back at work, that’s getting harder to do.

“It was easier to do the bubble during ‘hunker down,’ when people were really staying at home,” she said. “But we’ve got a lot more activity going on,” she added, noting that many of the clusters in Anchorage are tied to small family-and-friend groups.

'We hear a lot of people say, ‘My bubble’s safe,’ " said Zink. “But your bubble’s connected to another bubble, which is connected to another bubble. And so it just spreads from bubble to bubble. We used to think of a big fire hose, but I think it’s just we’re taking those buckets of COVID and spreading it from one small group to another.”

“I think it is OK if you can really enforce that bubble,” Johnston said. "But I think it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”

‘We can’t filter out a virus like coronavirus’

As Alaskans head indoors, another major concern is how to make indoor spaces as safe as possible, and the role building ventilation systems play in reducing transmission.

While the novel coronavirus mainly spreads through close contact between people indoors, new evidence suggests that the virus is also able to spread more than 6 feet via airborne transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in guidelines updated last week.

This risk can be slightly reduced by ensuring homes and commercial buildings have some kind of ventilation strategy in place, said Jack Hebert, founder and former CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.

“In warmer places, having doors and windows open and access to outdoor air that just washes through the house, and you’re less likely to pick up a virus that’s enclosed there,” he said. “In Alaska (in winter), we don’t do that.”

Instead, there are several other methods people in Alaska use to ventilate their homes, Hebert said, stressing that it’s important for Alaskans to always pay attention to their ventilation systems — COVID-19 or not — for general health and safety reasons.

But in terms of a ventilation system’s ability to filter out the coronavirus, that’s dubious, Hebert said.

“I don’t want to take away the importance in commercial buildings, office buildings and homes of maintaining those ventilation systems,” he said. “But we can’t filter out a virus like coronavirus with a ventilation system. You can provide more air, and healthier air. But an indoor environment is always going to be more of a concern than being outside.”

Ultimately, he said, having a properly functioning ventilation system should be just one piece of the puzzle.

“Really, keeping your bubble small, and being careful in public, that’s going to make the most difference,” said Hebert.

Chugach Peaks and part of Turnagain Arm are visible in this view looking south from the top of Flattop Mountain in Anchorage on October 12, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)