State public health officials are encouraging even fully vaccinated Alaskans to wear masks in parts of the state with high COVID-19 rates, including Anchorage.
But they also said their guidance is simply a recommendation.
“We want Alaskans to be safe,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, in an interview this week. “Alaskans should consider masking if they are in indoor spaces with other people where vaccination status is unknown, and there is higher transmission in that region.”
Anchorage officials on Thursday made it clear the state’s largest city did not intend to issue any new directives related to the updated guidance, including a mask mandate.
The state’s latest guidance on masks is in line with the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that vaccinated people mask up in indoor public spaces in communities where “substantial or high” coronavirus transmission exists.
The CDC’s new guidance was motivated by concerns over the highly contagious delta variant that’s driving a national surge in COVID-19 cases and a rise in hospitalizations. CDC officials cited new research showing both vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with the COVID-19 delta variant may be similarly contagious.
The CDC’s changing mask recommendations are coming under public criticism around the country as people express frustration over the “whiplash” effect of confusing messaging. The agency in May said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most settings.
Still the state health department is urging Alaskans who live in communities with high case rates to consider wearing masks again.
“Adding additional levels of protection such as masking can help benefit you as well as others, so that’s why we are asking those in the indoor space to consider masking as well,” Zink said.
State health officials say they are consulting with local and tribal governments as case counts rise.
Zink said she had begun wearing a mask again in public, even though she’s fully vaccinated.
“I am masking up again indoors, just because of the data that we’re seeing,” Zink said. “And I don’t want to be making personal decisions that I’m not sharing publicly. If I have access to data that’s making me choose a different behavior I want Alaskans to have the same access to that information.”
At a question-and-answer session with news media on Thursday, Anchorage’s new mayor, Dave Bronson, made it clear his administration did not intend to issue any new directives about masks. Bronson’s criticism of Anchorage’s previous COVID-19 public health restrictions was a focus of his recent campaign for office.
“I’m not here to compel people to wear masks or get vaccinated,” Bronson said.
“If you’re unsure and you just want to wear masks, wear masks, no one’s going to stop you from wearing a mask,” added Dr. Michael Savitt, the city’s newly appointed chief medical officer.
Savitt did emphasize the importance of people getting vaccinated, calling it “the most important tool we have right now.”
In Juneau, where case rates also have shot up, officials are taking a different approach. Juneau announced Thursday that a mask mandate would be reintroduced in the city beginning Friday midday.
The CDC has a map that Americans can use to check whether they live in a county with substantial or high transmission. As of Thursday, that map showed both Anchorage and Juneau at the highest transmission level.
While that map works well to assess transmission in more densely populated communities, Alaskans in smaller communities should look at their local coronavirus dashboards to determine whether they are in a area with high transmission, Zink told reporters Thursday.
“Oftentimes, communities have the best local data on how many cases are in their region,” Zink said.
Alaska’s health department initially issued a broad statement about masking that was later modified.
The recommendation came Wednesday in a weekly COVID-19 update thousands of Alaskans receive via email. It’s also posted online.
The guidance was one bullet point in a much longer summary: “All regions of Alaska are now at the ‘orange’ or ‘red’ Alert Level. All persons, including fully vaccinated persons, should wear a mask when in indoor public spaces.”
But health officials later said that language was corrected because it didn’t address different vaccination and transmission rates at the village or community level.
The state’s alert map is all orange and red, but the CDC map is “more granular” showing each census area and borough, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said. A number of census areas and boroughs have high vaccination rates and low virus transmission.
“That’s why we decided to modify the language, to make it more clear,” McLaughlin said. “This is not a mandate, not a requirement. It’s just a recommendation.”
The state’s new guidance says that along with regions in orange or red, most communities also meet the “substantial or high” threshold set by CDC: “Alaskans should consider following CDC guidance which encourages mask wearing in indoor public spaces if you live in an area experiencing substantial to high rates of community transmission according to CDC definitions.”
Despite the increased transmissibility of the delta variant, the three vaccines available in Alaska are still considered highly effective at protecting against all strains of the virus. The vast majority of Alaska’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among people who are unvaccinated, state health officials say.