In the days following Memorial Day, Alaska coronavirus cases began to rise again. New confirmed COVID-19 infections, which had been ticking along at a few per day for weeks, jumped up to about a half-dozen, then 13 on May 27. The past week has seen several days with more than a dozen new cases, and new cases among nonresidents have also spiked. That doesn’t justify panic — but it does reinforce the importance of testing, tracking infections, and deciding what threshold of new COVID-19 cases we can sustain before we apply additional control measures.
Alaska did the best of any U.S. state at beating back the initial wave of COVID-19 infections, thanks to strong and decisive health mandates from state and local leaders, good work by Alaskans in following those mandates, and a healthy dose of luck. The weeks since that initial wave showed there was little immediate danger of a runaway outbreak in the state, so authorities cautiously reopened the state’s economy, one step at a time. It wasn’t until the most recent phase, with the economy largely back to “business as usual” (or what passes for it in the COVID-19 era), that confirmed case growth resumed the pattern we saw around the time that health officials moved to place Alaska in “hunker-down” status.
Is there cause for concern now? Certainly. Case growth isn’t what we want to see under any circumstances. But Alaskans shouldn’t panic. We’re at a very different place than we were in mid-March.
• Recent case growth has been more clustered, in places less likely to spread broadly across the state: Most new nonresident cases have been in the seafood industry, where workers are largely sequestered from interaction with the public. And Anchorage’s new cases have largely been caused by an outbreak at a Providence transitional health care facility. Those case clusters, while unfortunate, aren’t likely to cause the same degree of community spread that we saw in late March, thanks to restrictions placed on workers and residents of those facilities by the state and the seafood industry.
• We’ve bought ourselves time: By avoiding an early surge in cases that overwhelmed hospitals, Alaska gave health care providers time to prepare for COVID-19 patients, secure ample stock of personal protective equipment and learn from harder-hit regions about how best to care for those suffering from the virus.
• Testing capacity has improved: Part of the reason we’re detecting more cases is that we’re testing more people, more often. Health care and fisheries workers in particular are being tested on a regular basis, as are those undergoing many elective medical procedures. That means we’re detecting cases now — including asymptomatic ones — that might have gone undetected before. The rate of positive tests has increased significantly in the past week, but it’s still below 1%, well less than the rates we saw on the front side of the initial virus infection curve.
Alaska is now at the beginning of its wildfire season, both in literal and metaphorical terms. And our response to outbreaks and case growth should be similar to combating wildfires: targeted application of resources, a dedicated effort to contain the outbreak, and vigilance on the part of authorities to combat any spreading aggressively. At the moment, there has been sharp — but relatively isolated — case growth in Southcentral Alaska, but the Interior and Southeast have seen few new cases in the past month. As we move forward, there may need to be different control measures in place in different municipalities. For instance, in Whittier, where most residents live in a single building and nearly a dozen new cases were diagnosed a few days ago, it makes sense for the municipality to adopt a higher level of precautions than in Fairbanks, which saw its last new confirmed case on May 9. As hot spots flare up, we can stamp them out — our experience hunkering down has shown us that it’s possible to put a lid on COVID-19, so long as we act quickly and decisively.
And if the state at large sees case growth at rates where exponential growth looks to carry the state’s case load beyond health care facilities’ ability to provide care, Alaska’s leaders and Alaskans themselves are well acquainted with the sorts of control measures necessary to bring the disease in check again. What’s important now is that our leaders and public health officials watch closely, consider carefully and determine when the public health need will outweigh the benefits of a reopened economy and the degree of normalcy to which we’ve recently returned. It’s a delicate calculus, and ultimately there’s no objectively correct answer — especially without the benefit of hindsight.
In the meantime, with the state still largely open for business, it’s all of our responsibility to deprive the virus of means to spread. Just as fires that threaten people are predominantly human-caused, it’s what we do that will determine how much and how quickly COVID-19 will spread — Smokey Bear’s adage that “only you can prevent forest fires” rings true for coronavirus, too. Social distancing, hygiene and wearing face coverings in public places are our best tools to minimize the risk of virus transmission. All of the state and municipal mandates rest on our willingness to abide by them to keep one another safe, and each new case of COVID-19 underscores the importance of that social contract.