Alaska’s second wave of COVID-19 infections shows no signs of slowing, and the alarm bells are already ringing loud and clear. Amid clear evidence of uncontrolled community spread in Anchorage, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz reimposed capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars. Anchorage School District backed away from plans for in-school instruction and canceled sports practices for at least two weeks as officials forecast a return to “high-risk” COVID-19 status. Positive test results have climbed steadily during the past two weeks, with the state’s three-day rate now above 3%. We’re in dangerous territory, and without serious effort by individuals and institutions alike, things could get worse — much worse — before they get better.
The measures adopted by Mayor Berkowitz and ASD, it’s safe to say, aren’t the outcome anyone prefers. Alaska’s economy, already reeling from a pandemic-spurred oil price crash, can scarcely handle body blows to its hospitality and tourism industries, which usually provide widespread jobs and an influx of cash for other local businesses during the summer months. And if schools can’t safely hold in-person classes, the spillover consequences for students, parents and teachers will be serious — and costly. The tools being utilized now are blunt instruments, employed not because they’re the best way to deal with the problem of COVID-19 transmission but because they’re some of the only ways that spread was contained during the first coronavirus wave in spring.
But we know much more about the disease now than we did then. Our objective during the weeks to come, individually and collectively, should be to avoid a large scale shutdown as we attempt to crush the second COVID-19 wave, which is coming upon us and threatens every step toward recovery we’ve made so far.
Individually, we have a good idea what that looks like. We should be wearing masks when around people outside our households. We should be maintaining distance — 6 feet or more — from other people when out in public. We should be keeping up with good hygiene practices, washing hands well and frequently, and disinfecting shared surfaces. We’ve known these things for months, but too many of us still disregard best practices, and that’s fueling this outbreak.
As a city and state, there is one big thing we could do that would certainly help: More and quicker testing. A lot more. Without it, we’ll always be playing catch-up against against a sneaky foe that moves too quickly to catch.
Some testing sites have begun offering no-referral testing, for anyone who wants to check if they have COVID-19. That’s good, and it’s helping us catch more asymptomatic cases than we did in the first wave, combating “silent spreaders” who pass the disease on without ever knowing they have it. Unfortunately, however, those sites are often overwhelmed, with lines of cars stretching around the block as residents wait to be tested. And Alaska’s labs that process samples, already scaled to the limit of their capacity, are similarly unable to process all of the tests, meaning many are shipped out of state. That, in turn, means turnaround times of four to six days instead of two. And that means more opportunity for the virus to spread. If an asymptotic carrier — and the science tells us there are many of them — is asked to wait hours for a test and several days for the results, we wont be able to slow the spread.
We have to do better.
Identifying and isolating asymptomatic carriers means testing a large segment of the population regardless of their circumstances. That’s what we’ve been doing at airports with great effect, but it needs to be expanded. Some Alaska health care providers have offered their front-line employees one test per week so that they can monitor their status on a regular basis. Why shouldn’t that same testing frequency be offered for all state employees? Why shouldn’t it be in place for all public school teachers? Or, for that matter, students?
The answer, right now, is capacity. We don’t have enough. But why not? The issue shouldn’t be money; the state has received a tremendous amount of CARES Act funding, much of which remains unspent. Testing equipment can be purchased. Swabs, vials, transport medium and testing reagents can be purchased, and if production remains an issue, it’s hard to understand why. In the first year after the U.S. entered World War II, the nation produced 22,000 planes — one every 24 minutes, working around the clock. America is no stranger to herculean efforts in the face of existential threats, and we’re facing one now.
To do the most good for the most people, our leaders must immediately prioritize the use of our resources — money, time and energy — to increasing our testing capacity, and they need to do it now. Alaska cannot afford to be forced back into a lockdown.
Alaska’s test numbers have jumped around considerably from day to day, but according to Department of Health and Social Services figures, our best day for test returns was July 15, when about 6,900 tests were returned from state and commercial labs. That’s just shy of 1% of Alaska’s population. If we could manage a few times that number — say, 20,000 tests per day — we could test 20% of the state’s population in a week. Even that wouldn’t catch every case of the disease, but it would be an order of magnitude better than we’re doing now. And if testing were focused on the populations most likely to be spreading the disease or at risk from it — front-line workers, bar and restaurant employees, students, teachers, the elderly — we could stop outbreaks before they ran beyond our control.
Sure, it’s a moon shot. But we’ve been to the moon before.