Criticism of Anchorage’s pandemic response shows deep misunderstanding of the facts

On several occasions, I’ve heard Anchorage’s mayoral candidate Dave Bronson criticize the municipality’s coronavirus mask mandate and capacity restrictions. He and other conservatives point out, correctly, that the Mat-Su Borough’s infection rate of 10.3% is nearly identical to Anchorage’s — 10.1%. Thus, in Bronson’s view, people and businesses in Anchorage have suffered from undue government restrictions.

Bronson fails to account for a host of reasons why Anchorage’s reported infection rates are almost certainly higher and Mat-Su rates almost certainly lower than they should be. First, there’s a leveling effect. When members of a community with higher infection rates spend much of their time in a community with more public health restrictions, they will benefit. And when members of a community with more restrictions are visited daily by thousands of people from a community with more infections, their infection rates will rise. I am referring, of course, to the thousands of Mat-Su residents who spend much of their time working, shopping or playing in Anchorage, then return to the relative safety of their homes. This alone could have boosted the rate of infection in Anchorage, despite the restrictions, while lowering the rate in the Mat-Su Borough.

There is also a “dumbing-down” effect. A large chunk of Anchorage residents believe, like many Mat-Su residents, that COVID-19 is a hoax and nothing to worry about. Many of them have been reluctant to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines or municipal restrictions unless forced to do so. Public health guidelines and restrictions only work if people are willing to adopt them for the greater good of the community.

Nevertheless, we all know that the Mat-Su Borough tends to be more conservative than Anchorage, and conservatives are both less likely to be concerned about coronavirus than others and less likely to test for possible infection. So that’s another reason why reported infection rates may be lower than expected in the Mat-Su.

Like the rest of the world, COVID-19 hit urban areas like Anchorage sooner than rural areas like the Mat-Su. Rural areas will catch up, however, unless they learn from early mistakes. The urban-rural dichotomy is not surprising, given that cities are more likely to be transportation hubs, with much higher rates of turnover and mixing. Turnover and mixing spread infectious disease.

Anchorage has a higher proportion of residents living in apartments and other group-living settings. Anchorage also has a substantially higher proportion of Alaska Natives, African Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, all populations that appear to have higher-than-average infection rates for a variety of socioeconomic and perhaps other reasons. Anchorage has four times as many residents who are 65 or older. The elderly are much more vulnerable to COVID-19 than younger people.

So let’s just say that Bronson hasn’t given much thought to his argument that Anchorage’s restrictions haven’t helped. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so sure that his preconceived biases are accurate. Because they aren’t.

This pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Anchorage was absolutely on target with its public health restrictions. No one knows how many businesses would have failed or people would have died if the virus had been allowed to spread unchecked in Alaska’s largest city. I would argue more businesses might have failed without the restrictions, but that’s not an experiment I’m willing to undertake and, unlike Bronson, I’m unwilling to condemn someone’s best efforts unless I have adequately considered the alternatives.

It’s been a long, hard year, but as bad as it’s been, it’s not over yet. If Mat-Su residents continue to refuse to get vaccinated, they will continue to infect the people of Anchorage, and it will be a long, long time before we reach herd immunity, if ever. I hope Bronson takes that into consideration the next time he wants to praise the passive, ineffectual and selfish response of our neighbors to the north to this public health crisis.

Rick Sinnott is a former Anchorage-area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He lives in Chugiak.

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