Alaska has a window of opportunity to prevent the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic from being realized here. But that window is closing fast. The state’s geographic isolation — and a measure of good luck — have contributed to the fact that so far, there are only a few dozen positive COVID-19 cases here and, as yet, no hospitalizations. But that’s likely to change in a hurry. Before the disease begins spreading rapidly beyond our control, Alaskans must do what we can to slow its transmission. And our government must, too.
It’s time for Gov. Dunleavy to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order and a ban on unessential travel.
Doctors have been calling for these measures since late last week, and for good reason. The experience of other states and countries that COVID-19 hit hard sooner has given us some valuable lessons. It has taught us that we must do whatever we can do to limit the movement of people; this will slow transmission, flatten the curve of new cases and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by cases. There’s no question that our situation will progress to the level that a shelter-in-place order will be necessary. To maximize its effectiveness, we should do so now.
Adopting those measures early, coupled with extensive testing and contact tracing, has helped keep South Korea’s case count and death toll low. There, the mortality rate for COVID-19 has been about 1% of total cases.
In Italy, on the other hand, the government didn’t act swiftly enough. Residents disregarded conflicting messages about whether socializing was permitted, and the government’s lockdown on affected areas went into effect too late to halt the virus’s exponential growth. The result? Thousands of new COVID-19 cases every day, as well as hundreds of deaths, as the sick overwhelmed the Italian hospital system. The lack of intensive care unit and ventilator capacity to deal with the most extreme cases has resulted in a substantially higher death rate in Italy. And people who have serious medical problems unrelated to the coronavirus are facing delays in care that are raising the death toll further. New U.S. COVID-19 cases are now fast outpacing Italy. If we don’t take action now, it will be too late.
Here’s the good news: Alaska still has a shot to have its COVID-19 case curve look more like South Korea’s than Italy’s. If Gov. Dunleavy issues a shelter-in-place order and we abide by it, going out in public only for essential travel (weekly grocery trips, exercise at a safe distance from others, etc.), it will shut down the coronavirus’ ability to hop from person to person. Every business and government agency able to let its employees work from home or exercise sick leave should do so. That goes for state employees and for schools, too.
As it stands, the guidance given to Alaskans has been a patchwork, and it’s no surprise that some residents are left unsure about whether they should go to work, or under what circumstances it’s safe to interact with other people. Travel orders and “hunker down” instructions are in place in some municipalities, but not others. The governor’s two-week mandatory quarantine period for arriving travelers is a good step, but to be effective, measures need to be clear, strict, universal and easily understood by all Alaskans. The shelter-in-place order must apply to all of the state, no exceptions.
There’s no question that the economic costs associated with sheltering in place will be immense. But the consequences of trying to return to business as usual would almost certainly be worse: Hospitals’ ability to treat patients effectively would collapse under the weight of new cases, thousands of Alaskans — depending on transmission rates, potentially tens of thousands — would die, and industries would be crippled by massive quantities of employees out sick for weeks to months at a time. It’s not hard to look at South Korea and Italy’s response to the pandemic, as well as the resulting economic and social effects, and realize which is the better path.
On Monday evening, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink referenced “The Lord of the Rings” when she said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given.” She’s right. We’ve been given the gift of a little time, but it’s vanishing fast. We must make the most of it.
For the good of Alaska, Gov. Dunleavy must issue a shelter-in-place order and a travel ban. And for the good of ourselves, our family members and our neighbors, we Alaskans must abide by it. Our lives depend on it.