Alaska News

Hand-washing, masking and distancing remain crucial as coronavirus strains multiply, Alaska officials say

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A highly contagious strain of the novel coronavirus was recently detected in Alaska. According to experts, that means Alaskans should still be taking pandemic safety measures seriously — especially if they weren’t already.

To be sure, the new variant still spreads the same way as others — usually through tiny respiratory droplets in the air — but the strain, known as B.1.1.7 or the U.K. variant (because that’s where it was originally identified), may be much more contagious than the current, more common strain that’s circulating.

One person in Alaska was infected with the variant in December, health officials said last week, though most cases statewide are not analyzed for new strains.

That means how people go about their pandemic protection measures really matters. Hand-washing, physical distancing and mask wearing still count. And everyone needs to be sure they’re doing all of that correctly.

The bottom line, according to Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, is that we’re all in an environment where there’s a higher possibility of coronavirus transmission. “So just be better at your prevention,” she said.

[Alaska coronavirus Q&A: Can fully vaccinated people socialize unmasked? Does the virus spread more easily in freezing temperatures?]

People should be staying 6 feet from others, she said. It’s hard to eyeball 6 feet, said Johnston, adding that people can measure out the correct distance or pace it out to be sure. Given that the new strain is more contagious, there’s a smaller margin for error, she said.

The Alaskan who was infected with the new variant had recently traveled, indicating they may have picked it up while out of state. Officials believe the case was contained to the person who got sick and one person they live with, said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

So for the moment, there’s no evidence that the new variant is circulating widely across the state, he said.

“The same kinds of intervention measures that we’ve been discussing all along in the pandemic — mask use, physical distancing, avoiding large crowds, handwashing — all of that applies,” Hennessy said.

However, the new and emerging strains of the virus do highlight concerns over travel because that’s how a variant may end up getting introduced into Alaska, Hennessy said. It underscores the importance of post-travel testing and quarantine. That way, Alaska can contain those new variants and keep them from entering the broader community, Hennessy said.

To mask or double mask

Discussions of the more contagious virus strains almost inevitably raise the question of whether to wear two masks at the same time.

It’s not known how much of a difference a second mask would make, Hennessy said. He wasn’t aware of any scientific studies that specifically address the question, he said.

“But, I think we can rationally conclude that having more layers is better protection for the average face mask,” Hennessy said.

There are several things to consider when it comes to deciding on a mask. A single-layer, loose, knit face covering is not recommended because it doesn’t provide enough protection, he said.

“I think having a good-fitting mask that you can wear comfortably and you don’t have to fuss with, that doesn’t fog up your glasses, if you’re a glasses wearer, that’s an important find. And if you can wear it consistently, that’s probably more important than trying to figure out how to get a second mask on,” Hennessy said.

If you can see through the mask’s material when it’s held up to the light, it’s probably not doing a good job, Johnston said.

“Certainly, if you have two masks, it’s likely going to provide just a little bit more protection than one mask,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said last week.

However, the most important thing about wearing a mask, whether doubled or not, is it needs to fit correctly and be covering both your nose and mouth without gaps on the sides, McLaughlin said.

All of the safety measures become more critical as new strains emerge and the world races to vaccinate its most vulnerable, Hennessy said. The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for the virus to mutate. He said it’s important to control the virus before it “wriggles” away, given the potential that new medications or vaccines might not work as well on the new strains.

“I just think it highlights the race that we’re in and the need for people to really work hard to follow public health recommendations as we enter this stretch of the effort to contain the epidemic,” Hennessy said. “And if we’re able to do that and do it right, we can beat this thing.”

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