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Health officials urge Alaskans to keep following local mask rules after CDC relaxes guidance for vaccinated people

Rosa and Harold Meadors, visiting from Seattle, cross West Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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State health officials are urging Alaskans to continue to follow local mask requirements and business-specific rules after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday relaxed its guidance for those who are fully vaccinated.

In a significant shift, the CDC said Thursday that fully vaccinated people can now go safely without face coverings in most indoor and outdoor settings.

But many communities across the state — including Anchorage and Juneau — still require mask-wearing in most public settings, and most as of Thursday afternoon had yet to make any changes based on the latest guidance.

“The CDC was very clear about this, that you should still wear well-fitted masks when required by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial laws, rules and regulations within local ordinances,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, during a call with reporters.

The Anchorage emergency order on masking still requires residents to wear face coverings indoors in public settings or communal spaces outside the home, or at outdoor gatherings.

“We’ve received the latest CDC guidance on masking and expect to have more to say tomorrow once we’ve finished reviewing the guidance in the context of our local mask order,” city spokeswoman Katie Scovic said Thursday.

The City and Borough of Juneau still has a mask mandate, but the city’s vaccination rate has risen high enough and its case rate is low enough that its rules do not require masks in places where everyone is vaccinated. A spokeswoman said Juneau’s emergency operations center is working on updating the city’s mitigation strategies, and those changes will be released to the public when finished.

The Alaska State Capitol’s mask mandate also remains in place. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, is chair of the Legislative Council, which sets rules for the Capitol. Hannan said the mandate will remain unless changed by lawmakers.

There’s no borough-wide mask mandate in Mat-Su, but school district officials there — in an email saying their masking policy wouldn’t change — alluded to the potential for confusion and uncertainty surrounding how they could confirm whether someone was vaccinated.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District said in an email to families and staff: “Without an established process for verifying vaccination status and to avoid confusion with ongoing mitigation efforts in the final week of the school year,” masks will continue to be required through the school year, which concludes next week.

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., which serves communities in the Y-K Delta, said Thursday on Facebook that it, too, was reviewing the latest CDC guidance and would share its own updated recommendations next week. “Until then, please continue following current COVID-19 prevention protocols and guidance,” YKHC said.

People sit in the grass in Peratrovich Park and eat lunch in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Other authorities, however, have already begun to make changes.

In Fairbanks, which does not have a citywide mask mandate, the school district superintendent said Thursday that in light of the new guidance, “effective immediately, adults and high school students age 16 and above will no longer be required to wear masks or social distance in schools or at district events and activities.”

The school district is not requesting or requiring the vaccination status of students, staff or community members. This spring, Fairbanks experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that health officials said particularly affected people who weren’t vaccinated.

The state of Alaska rescinded a mask mandate in state buildings on May 6, a week before the CDC altered its guidance. The new policy requires masks only in “high-risk environments” such as the Pioneer Homes, prisons and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

“In non-high-risk environments such as enclosed offices or workspaces, fully vaccinated individuals can gather and work without wearing masks or social distancing,” the state’s policy says.

State health officials said Thursday that overall, they found the updated guidance to be solidly grounded in science — and a hopeful sign of a turning point in the pandemic.

“The new guidance is based on the available science, and over the past few weeks, cases have been falling dramatically,” said McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist.

Many studies have shown the three currently available vaccines to be highly effective in real-world settings at preventing mild and severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths, as well as reducing the spread of coronavirus variants and asymptomatic spread of the virus, McLaughlin said.

“So I feel like this new guidance is very encouraging, and we’re very excited about it,” he said.

There were some exceptions noted in the new CDC guidance: Mask-wearing is still recommended for fully vaccinated individuals on planes, buses and other forms of public transportation, as well as when visiting or working in crowded, indoor settings like hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

People listen to a tour guide before their sightseeing trolley departs downtown Anchorage on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

There is also “limited data on vaccine protection in people who are immunocompromised,” the CDC said. Immunocompromised people “should discuss the need for personal protective measures with their healthcare provider after vaccination,” the agency noted.

Some Alaskans may also choose to continue wearing masks as an added precaution even when they don’t have to, which is a personal choice, McLaughlin said.

“One of the things that the CDC is making very clear is the fact that they’ve come out with this new guidance doesn’t mean that people may not choose to continue to wear masks,” McLaughlin said. “Many people will continue to wear masks, I’m sure, even though they’re fully vaccinated.”

The vaccines are highly, but not 100%, effective at preventing illness.

“The risk is low, but the risk is still there,” McLaughlin said.

Heidi Hedberg, director of the Alaska Division of Public Health, said that she planned on continuing to wear a mask in settings where it would make others feel safer.

“I think that we’ve all kind of gotten used to wearing masks,” she said. “And so I think that there’s some people that want to wear a mask, even though it’s not required. And so if I’m going to meet them, I’m going to put my mask on because it makes that conversation more comfortable for both that person and myself.”

Reporter James Brooks in Juneau contributed to this story.

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