by Representatives Tiffany Zulkosky & Zack Fields, Verné Boerner, and Amy Bukac
Despite our collective fatigue with COVID-19, the pandemic continues to spread rapidly across our country, escalate in cases around our state, and disrupt our daily lives. Because we cannot know when an infection of the novel virus will result in serious illness that requires hospitalization or could lead to death, managing Alaska’s response to the pandemic by relying on inpatient beds and access to ventilators at our hospitals – as the State relaxes statewide health mandates – is not a recipe for success.
Additionally, medical experts are beginning to see emerging numbers of younger, healthy people without underlying health conditions get severely ill or die because of the virus, as we saw in the untimely passing of 41-year old Broadway actor Nick Cordero. 1
In recent weeks, Alaska joined several states in reporting record-setting increases in COVID-19 cases. We believe our number one goal should be to mitigate COVID-19 cases altogether. Not doing so could force us to lose control of the virus’ spread, overwhelm our healthcare infrastructure, and witness widespread and unnecessary loss of human life – while devastating our economy.
We are already beginning to see Alaska’s contact tracing resources reach their limit, a dangerous forewarning of what could come next if action is not taken to lessen the spread.
Choosing between a healthy economy and a healthy population is a false dichotomy. The bottom line is, we cannot have one without the other. We have learned from other countries and communities that by quickly enacting practical, commonsense measures, we can save lives and safely keep our economy moving.
Instead, we have seen the number of cases rise dramatically as Alaskans and visitors alike have flocked to local businesses following the easing of early pandemic restrictions and non-essential interstate travel has resumed.
Alaska must enact a containment strategy established in the interest of public health and epidemiology that outlines how the State will responsibly remain open, while stabilizing or decreasing rates of COVID-19 infection among Alaskans. The ability of this virus to grow exponentially means that by the time we realize the urgency of a situation, it will be too late.
Enacting practical and simple steps, like limiting the number of people at social gatherings, addressing capacity at public businesses, and issuing workplace safety standards can help the State avoid having to take more drastic measures like shelter-in-place orders and mandatory two-week quarantine after travel.
And while face coverings in public have become a topic of political debate, data has shown time and again that it is one of the most effective and simple ways to cut transmission of COVID-19.
In May, two hairstylists in Springfield, Missouri, saw 140 clients while symptomatic with the virus. No additional COVID-19 cases were linked to the salon beyond the two stylists because they, and all of their clients, wore face coverings and practiced physical distancing measures. 2
Although inconvenient, during this time of uncertainty we know one thing, my mask protects you and your mask protects me. Wearing a mask is not a commentary of a person’s political ideology, but instead is an act of love for our fellow Alaskans – nearly 1/3 of whom have risk factors that make them vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19.
The best way to ensure that Alaskans can continue earning income and avoid another shutdown, is to require masks indoors when physical distance cannot be maintained.
In recognizing that COVID-19 has global reach and the solutions needed to address the challenges posed by it will vary across communities, the State of Alaska should do everything it can to empower all municipalities (regardless of class) to protect the people they serve. Good government is local government, and during this public health emergency, all levels of government must work together to keep Alaskans safe.
The State should provide clear guidance to communities and enforcement resources should local leaders opt to enact more stringent mandates when the State is unwilling to do so – whether that is requiring testing at rural airports after travel or mandating masks in public spaces.
Amidst the unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases in Alaska, it is clear that conducting business as usual is not a viable path forward for the State to help protect Alaskans’ health and our economy. However, by implementing responsible planning and decisive commonsense measures today, we can save the jobs and lives of our neighbors, our parents, our loved ones, and our fellow Alaskans tomorrow.
Representative Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel is the Chair for the House Health & Social Services, and the House Tribal Affairs. Representative Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, Co-Chair House State Affairs. Verné Boerner is President and CEO of the Alaska Native Health Board. Amy Bukac, MD is President of the Alaska Academy of Family Physicians.
1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/health/coronavirus-nick-cordero-underlying-conditions.html. 2 https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/11/us/missouri-hairstylists-coronavirus-clients-trnd/index.html.