Alaska’s chief medical officer pushes back against ‘herd immunity’ to control virus spread

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink looks on as Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy gives a press conference about the novel coronavirus on Monday, March 9, 2020. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s top doctor is warning against the risk of allowing the number of COVID-19 cases to grow unchecked.

While some Alaskans have argued that the state should allow enough people to contract the virus that it reaches what’s known as “herd immunity,” where enough people are immune that it stops spreading, State Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink pushed back.

For one, Zink said at a news conference Wednesday, no demographic is safe from the disease. She said more than a quarter of people hospitalized with the disease in the U.S. had no underlying conditions or were not considered high-risk.

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“We see very young people and very healthy people having very significant consequences from this disease, including hospitalization and stroke and other significant complications,” she said.

Zink said intentionally allowing cases to grow puts the state at real risk of overwhelming the health care system, like has happened in other places in the country and regions around the world.

“I think that the more that we can quickly identify cases and contain them and kind of keep a lid on it, the amount of data and science that’s coming out regarding COVID right now is just amazing,” Zink said. “And to see the medical community and the scientific community coming together around the world to find solutions is just really inspiring.”

Zink said that as time passes, doctors and scientists will have a better understanding of how to treat, prevent and test for the disease. She said this will be important in protecting everyone.

“It’s an important health measure, to not let it just open like wildfire throughout our community,” she said. “But we’re trying to do it in a strategic way that allows other health care services to move forward and allows people’s lives to continue to the greatest extent possible.”

Zink said other countries are providing lessons in how to thread the needle of limiting the spread of the disease while allowing people to live their lives.

Many scientists believe people with the virus have some immunity against contracting it again. But scientists don’t know how long immunity lasts. And estimates for the share of a population that must contract the virus to achieve herd immunity are roughly 70%. In Alaska, that would be more than 500,000 people.

The state has 355 cases confirmed by a test. Public health workers don’t know the total number of cases that have gone untested. But State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said in a videoconference on Wednesday that he thinks it’s less than 10 times the total known cases. And even if there were 3,500 cases, that would still be less than half a percent of the state’s population.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.