Opinions

Maintaining COVID-19 suppression measures is hard. But Alaskans must.

As public health professionals, we believe the first priority in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is to prevent infections and save lives.

A team at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Division of Population Health Sciences has looked closely at the lessons from other countries and expert predictions. We have reviewed the policies enacted in Alaska and tracked the alarming increase in cases in our state. We have run mathematical models using Alaska data.

We are convinced that we are at real risk of overwhelming our hospitals if we do too little or if we act too late to stop COVID-19. If we break our health care system, many thousands of Alaskans will die unnecessarily, either from COVID-19 or from other health emergencies that cannot be treated in time. The recent statewide orders to shelter in place and to avoid non-essential travel are important steps in the right direction.

The predictions also show that containing this virus will take many months and will require prolonged community mitigation strategies. We will need to be patient and use all the tools available. These include increasing testing, isolating individual cases, and monitoring contacts for infection while helping people at high risk avoid exposure. These measures alone won’t be enough. We must also maintain social distancing to interrupt transmission of the virus. If we prevent a huge surge of cases in the next months but then remove community mitigation measures too soon, the rebound of cases is predicted to be as large as the first wave that we worked so hard to avoid.

By suppressing virus transmission, we can buy time for our health care system. Time is needed to increase the number of hospital beds, add ventilators, obtain more personal protective equipment and supplies, let hospitals reorganize and allow health care workers to be more prepared. Buying time will also allow development of life-saving treatments and a vaccine to prevent infection. Buying time will allow us to learn from the rest of the world exactly when and how best to relax community mitigation measures to reduce a rebound of the virus.

We have shared what we learned with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. They are listening and also working to save lives through the policies, mandates and alerts enacted. We support these actions and have made recommendations for how they can be strengthened to improve Alaska’s chances for controlling the pandemic. During the next several weeks, we will learn even more and intend to continue sharing information.

The health of Alaska’s economy is also vital. However, if we remove the community mitigation measures too early with the hope of stimulating the economy, many Alaskans will die unnecessarily. We must adapt to these new changes and together find ways to maintain commerce and society while keeping the spread of COVID-19 as low as possible. We know that what is being asked of us will not be easy. We all worry about the harm to families, our economy and society. But we believe community mitigation measures must be followed to save lives.

Each of us has a role to play in stopping the outbreak. We need everyone to help and we are inspired to see so many Alaskans doing their part. Let's continue to take care of each other, follow the recommendations and stay informed. Working together will save lives.

Thomas Hennessy, M.D., M.P.H., Captain, U.S.P.H.S. (ret)

Lauren Lessard, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Ruby Fried, Ph.D.

Lisa Bulkow, M.S.

Gabriel M. Garcia, Ph.D., M.A., M.P.H.

Jenny Miller, Dr. P.H., M.S., M.P.H.

Liz Snyder, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Kristin Bogue, M.S.Ed., C.H.E.S.

Nancy Nix, M.D., M.P.H. and T.M., M.Ed., C.H.E.S.

Micah Hahn, Ph.D. M.P.H.

Jennifer Meyer, Ph.D., M.P.H., C.P.H., R.N.

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