An Anchorage infectious disease doctor’s cautionary tale

I’m an Anchorage infectious disease physician, routinely working in COVID-19 isolation units caring for our community’s most ill and contagious patients. Throughout the pandemic, I remained uninfected, a testament to the power of masking and social distancing. And now … I’m stuck at home, isolated with COVID-19 — acquired not in our busiest hospital, but in an Alaska community with high rates of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and low rates of mask wearing in public spaces. It is ironic that 20 months into the worst pandemic in a century, health care workers are safer in biohazard units than while eating cheeseburgers after their shifts. Unfortunately, this is the reality facing our dear city. Let me tell you why this matters to all of us.

As a living — albeit mildly ill — example, health care workers are again missing work due to a combination of critical factors: one, the extraordinary infectiousness of the delta variant; two, the low rate of masking in indoor public spaces; three, the waning effectiveness of prior vaccination; four, individual lapses in judgment. Mine? That dinner in a restaurant, where nobody except my vaccinated daughter and I were masked, would be OK. I was wrong, and now feel I have let down my family, my colleagues, my patients and even my community.

My fellow health care workers, the nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and so many others; they are the ones who make our hospitals work. They themselves are the hospital “beds.” Since most are vaccinated, they will not become critically ill or die, but their absence could mean that your grandmother with a stroke, or uncle with severe COVID-19, or spouse and children in a car accident will not have access to the intensive care they need. I have a wife. I have two daughters. I have parents. They live here too.

I truly believe that no Anchorage resident wishes to harm their fellow citizens. But many among us remain susceptible to severe COVID-19. The plain and indisputable fact is that mask wearing and social distancing reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and save lives. We know this. We saw the benefits of our community-wide masking efforts firsthand. We have neighbors, loved ones and patients who would not be here without those efforts. But until all of us are protected against severe COVID-19, widespread masking in public is needed — now — to make our community safe.

Please. Help us help you to make our city safe again and protect our loved ones from harm. Get vaccinated. Follow CDC guidance and wear your masks when you are in indoor public spaces. Practice social distancing unless everyone in your group is vaccinated. And encourage others to do the same.

Benjamin Westley, M.D., is an infectious disease physician practicing in Anchorage.

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