Lately, after a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, good news has suddenly appeared almost everywhere at once. Alaska leads the nation in per-capita vaccinations, and supply of vaccines continues to increase dramatically. The pool of Alaskans now eligible for shots now includes several hundred thousand residents, and more than a quarter of adults in the state have already gotten at least one dose. Anchorage’s local health mandates are being relaxed to their most accommodating levels since before the pandemic began.
Amid all this, it would be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the pandemic is well in hand — or at least so close to it that our individual behavior wouldn’t matter much one way or the other. Here’s why we shouldn’t make that mistake.
Variants are real — and they’re here
A handful of COVID-19 variants have begun cropping up at locations around the globe — mutations of the original virus that spread more easily or are more resistant to vaccines. These strains are a problem because they can lead to widespread spikes in infections, in some cases even among people who have had the virus before. They make it more difficult to achieve herd immunity — which we’ll need to truly return to normal.
Importantly, the most pernicious of those variants, first identified in Manaus, Brazil, has already been detected in Alaska. It spreads easily, is harder to knock down and can reinfect those who have already battled COVID-19 once. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re in a race between the vaccines and the variants, and it’s up to us to make sure the COVID-19 variants don’t prevail.
So how do we do that?
We need more testing
Paradoxically, the vaccines that are making us safer one shot at a time are also feeding a sense of complacency — that it’s just a matter of time until we can return to normal life, no matter what we do, and it’s a simple matter of waiting the virus out. But the disease is still spreading — new cases, which had been ticking down since December, have recently begun increasing again. In the past two weeks, the percent of tests that are positive — the leading indicator of virus spread — has begun to increase slightly. The increases in cases and test positivity are small, to be sure, but any increase means we are trending in the wrong direction. And perhaps more concerning: The testing rate is down, despite tests still being free and easily accessible — the state is now averaging about 6,000 tests per day, a 40% reduction in testing volume since December.
That’s a bad combination, because sparse testing allows for more spread and makes contact tracing more difficult. By taking our foot off the gas on testing, we’re giving up our best weapon for catching the spread of the virus early. Testing helps us make sure that those who do contract the virus, particularly those who have mild symptoms or completely asymptomatic cases, don’t spread it widely.
Without higher case levels, how do we get residents to test more? One good solution is to offer for free or even mandate testing in settings where people gather, to the extent that’s possible. The Municipality of Anchorage has the right idea in its most recent executive order, which allows for high school sports competitions that include teams from outside Anchorage — provided that athletes get tested.
Those tests won’t delay games or stop athletes from participating, but they will give a snapshot that will help determine potential exposure in the event of a positive test. And the more of these snapshots we can capture, the closer we are to getting a full picture that would allow us to contain outbreaks before case numbers spike beyond our control. The municipality should take more such opportunities to capture snapshots — random samples of Anchorage School District staff and students, for instance, or testing for visitors to City Hall. During the explosion of COVID-19 cases in November and December, we built tremendous testing capacity. Let’s not waste that work by taking our foot off the gas pedal now.
We’re on the verge of turning a corner on COVID-19, and if we can keep infection numbers down, we’ll get there faster and without running the risk of the imposition of more restrictive measures to keep the virus at bay. If we continue to abide by local health mandates, as well as the best practices of preventing COVID-10 exposure — washing hands frequently, wearing masks in public, maintaining six feet of distance from others and minimizing contact with people outside your household — we’ll give ourselves and the vaccines the best chance to help put the pandemic behind us for good.