Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Since Alaska reported its first case of COVID-19 in March, nearly 7,000 cases of the disease have been reported, and 45 Alaskans have died. Despite one of the lowest death counts in the country, in Alaska -- where the whole state often feels like one big small town -- a single death reverberates through communities far and wide.

While COVID-19 cases are on the rise, there are practical steps you can take to protect yourself, your household, and your community from the potentially tragic consequences of the disease.

Every test is a chance for prevention

Alaska Native and American Indian people have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, accounting for more than a third of the state’s deaths despite comprising only about 16 percent of the state’s overall population.

“COVID-19 has negatively affected minority populations more than the general public,” said Elizabeth Arteaga, director of testing and resulting operations at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Arteaga has overseen the collection of more than 50,000 COVID-19 tests at ANTHC’s Anchorage campus, plus additional tests sent in from regional health care facilities around the state.

“Every single test is a chance to prevent it from spreading to more Alaskans,” Arteaga said.

One of ANTHC’s biggest goals is preventing the virus from spreading to rural communities, where some of Alaska’s most vulnerable residents live. In many communities, residents lack immediate access to full-service health care, and extended families are often living together and sharing the same indoor air, Arteaga said.

Roughly 30 communities are also managing the crisis without running water, a basic resource that most Americans take for granted. Research has shown that households without running water often practice extreme conservation that reduces handwashing and consequently results in higher rates of respiratory illness -- a very real concern as the pandemic rages on.

Fortunately, there are some simple, scientifically proven steps Alaskans -- and everyone -- can take to protect their families.

Easy ways to protect your household

Erica Lambers is an infection prevention nurse at ANTHC who trains staff and patients on proper use of masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE).

COVID spreads more quickly than most diseases, so testing, tracking and education are critical, Lambers said.

“You’ve got to be really diligent and a team player,” Lambers said. “Don’t touch your face, and don’t let me touch my face.”

Other epidemics have taught the health care field that proper use of PPE is essential, Lambers said. The SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks demonstrated that careful attention to how PPE is used is essential for preventing illness in healthcare workers. Data shows that during the SARS outbreak, around 20 percent of healthcare workers got sick, which was partially attributed to improper usage of PPE, according to Lambers.

“If you don’t manage your PPE well, that’s when you can get a false sense of security,” Lambers said.

With mask-wearing and hand hygiene now believed to be some of our most important tools in curbing the spread of COVID-19, these lessons from the health care field are valuable in every setting, from home to work to school. Lambers laid out these easy guidelines anyone can follow at home:

Continuously wearing gloves is generally not recommended, Lambers said, as evidence shows that wearing gloves leads to cross-contamination and failure to practice good hand hygiene.

Only use gloves when you anticipate that you’ll be touching something that’s going to be highly contaminated. As soon as you’re done touching that object, throw the gloves away, and clean your hands.

Hand hygiene refers to keeping your hands clean using either alcohol-based hand sanitizers or hand washing. Both are good practices, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers for hands that aren’t visibly soiled, since hand sanitizer kills both bacteria and viruses. If you can see any dirt or other matter on your hands, make sure to wash them with soap and water. The virus that causes COVID-19 is what’s known as an “enveloped virus,” with a surface membrane that is dissolved by soap.

Whatever method you use, make sure to clean your hands thoroughly and on all surfaces, Lambers said. The World Health Organization recommends 20-30 seconds of rubbing for an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and 40-60 seconds of scrubbing with soap and water.

Masks should have a snug fit. Once it’s on your face, try not to touch your mask or adjust it. After you take off a dirty mask, “do a hand hygiene moment,” Lambers said.

It’s ideal to dedicate a mask to each day of the week, washing the masks in between usage. If you don’t have the resources for that, “strategic storage” is essential, Lambers said. That means keeping the outside surface of your mask from touching the inside surface of the mask, which can lead to potential spread of the virus when not in use.

“I see a lot of people hanging them from rearview mirrors, and that’s not necessarily the worst thing, but wash your hands after you touch it and before you put it on.” Lambers said. “If you can swap them out, that’s better.”

At the end of the day, “It’s really, you know -- hand hygiene, hand hygiene, hand hygiene,” Lambers said.

Small steps, big difference

One silver lining is that COVID-19 is one of the easiest viruses to kill, Lambers said. That means regular cleaning products are effective to keep the virus at bay. COVID-19 is caused by an enveloped virus, which dies quickly after contact with cleaning products.

“That’s the good news about COVID. It’s super easily killed by products we all use and have in our homes,” Lambers said.

One misconception Lambers hears often is that if a test is negative, a person definitely doesn’t have COVID-19. Sometimes people are tested after exposure, but before the virus has had a chance to start shedding and thus appear on a test result.

“A test is really looking at a moment in time,” Lambers said. If you develop symptoms, stay home, self-isolate, and get tested again if your symptoms continue.

One other way to fight COVID-19 is to get your flu shot. As the flu season ramps up, it’s important to keep hospital beds empty and available. Take measures to keep yourself healthy and you’ll help others, too.

“We’re really hopeful that a vaccine will be coming and effective,” Lambers said. “In the meantime it’s really just identifying, isolating, and alerting folks.”

That means staying home if you feel sick, keeping your social bubble small, staying 6 feet from others, using your mask correctly, and following guidelines from your health care provider.

While keeping your hands clean and taking care of your mask may sound like small steps, they can make a big difference -- and they give each of us the power to play a role in stopping the virus and saving lives.

Where to find easy, free COVID-19 tests

The Municipality of Anchorage offers free COVID-19 testing at locations throughout the city, for both Alaska residents and non-residents. Sign up with an account online before you arrive or when you get to the test site. Results are emailed within four business days.

Free tests are available for Alaska Native and American Indian people at the testing site located on the ANTHC campus. The hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Test results come back within three days.

Or check out a list of testing sites by community from Adak to Yakutat, compiled by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.