There’s only one way to keep school on track this fall

The pandemic was over. Until it wasn’t.

For a glorious few weeks — the month of June, roughly — Alaska had its biggest lull in cases since the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was reason to believe it could be permanent. After all, Alaska has so far been spared the worst of the horrors seen in the Lower 48 and globally, and the great distances between communities here has provided some measure of dampening for the virus’ spread.

Unfortunately, Alaska has also fallen well off the pace in vaccinations, which gave the coronavirus a sizable population in which to spread if (or rather, when) it mutated in a way that made it more contagious.

Enter the delta variant. It replicates quicker and generates far more copies of itself in infected people — as much as 1,260 times as many, according to a recent study. That means it spreads farther, faster, easier. And we’ve already seen where it’s heading — even with more than 317,000 Alaskans fully vaccinated, case rates have climbed to levels we haven’t seen since January, during the state’s last big surge in cases. Hospitals are filling up, due partly to COVID-19 and partly to seasonal trends — on Thursday, only one in 20 Anchorage hospital beds was available. Hospital administrators are already sounding the alarm.

Those who don’t appreciate the urgency or necessity of getting vaccinated would do well to consider our community’s position. We have two weeks until K-12 school starts in the Anchorage School District. Cases could very well spike in August to levels that would require not just mandatory masks, but shutdown of sports and other extracurricular activities requiring close contact. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that, if cases kept climbing, schools would have to revert to distanced online teaching. And that’s an outcome no one wants.

And the effects of the pandemic on students go well beyond whether they have to attend school in a mask. Students in kindergarten through 6th grade, being younger than 12 years old, aren’t eligible for the vaccine themselves, so elementary schools present a particularly susceptible group for the virus to spread. And although children rarely suffer serious cases of COVID-19, rarely isn’t never — not to mention the other, potentially much more vulnerable members of their families who stand to be exposed. We can’t afford to roll the dice.

The vaccines are safe. They reduce your potential chance of getting COVID-19 tremendously — for the past several months, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred nearly exclusively among non-vaccinated Alaskans. The vaccines offer far more protection against COVID-19 than the antibodies generated by a previous case of the disease. And they help protect others from the disease through herd immunity — the fewer unvaccinated people the virus encounters, the less likely it is to be able to spread widely.

We’ve beaten back the COVID-19 tide before. We have all the tools we need to fight it — multiple vaccines in abundant supply. But we have to act now. Vaccines don’t work as a cure once you’re already sick, and the more case counts rise, the more likely it will be that the truly devastating aspects of the pandemic — business closures, tourism shutdowns, school and sports disruptions, and long-term health consequences and deaths of our friends and neighbors — will return.

Take the advice of Dr. Anne Zink, Gov. Dunleavy, our congressional delegation and medical professionals throughout our community. Get vaccinated, and urge your friends and family to do the same. Wear a mask indoors in public places, per the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and state authorities. We can beat this. But we all have to be pulling in the same direction to do it.