Alaska’s top doctor on living with COVID in the post-restriction era

A woman on a bridge
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink in September 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Municipalities across the state have dropped pandemic restrictions, but a lot of people are still getting COVID-19. KTOO’s Claire Stremple checked in with Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink to talk about this moment of living with COVID while many are ready to move on.

Listen here:

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Claire Stremple: So, I myself got COVID last week — maybe you can hear some lingering congestion in my voice. It was a strange moment, after spending two years working to avoid getting sick, to get COVID while I’m hearing about a “post-pandemic” world. And I wasn’t alone. A lot of people I know here in Juneau are also getting sick lately.

How is public health thinking about this moment? And how about your colleagues who work in clinical settings?

Dr. Anne Zink: Yeah, I think it’s continued to change throughout the pandemic. You know, we really have very different tools in 2022 than we did in 2020. It’s never fun to be sick, and so I’m sorry that you got sick. And it can be, I think, particularly — it’s sometimes, for many, frightening after, as you mentioned, avoiding it for many years. Because we don’t know the long term implications of the disease.

We’re learning a lot. And we know a lot more now than we did beforehand. There’s also no shame in getting COVID. And so we know it’s a highly, highly contagious virus that just moves quickly from person to person, so I think we need to make sure that we just recognize that as well. It’s just a virus, and it’s just contagious, and people are going to get it overall.

[I’m] not surprised that many vaccinated people are getting COVID-19 right now, as it is so transmissible. But what’s great is to see some of our lowest hospitalization rates during the whole pandemic, is what we’re seeing right now. And we’re just not seeing the same rate of people getting really sick, needing to go to the emergency department, being hospitalized and dying from this disease.

It’s still happening — still admit people all the time in the emergency department. But nothing like we saw, particularly during the delta wave. We got hit so hard in this state by the delta wave, and then what we saw, particularly in other states and other countries early on.

CS: Speaking of the metrics that we’re looking at, we relied on case counts for a long time to understand what was happening with the pandemic in our communities. Some people checked them every day, like the weather. Hospital numbers are a really important indicator. Now, as you mentioned, what’s the state plan for tracking cases and tracking the virus going forward?

AZ: We’ve always known from the beginning that we have not identified every case. We identified a lot of cases, particularly at the beginning, but we have never identified all the cases. There was asymptomatic spread, there were people who did not want to get tested.

And now we probably have an even higher likelihood that we’re not seeing all the case numbers because people are doing home testing [and] home testing isn’t reported. They may be testing in different avenues, and we see a real change in that landscape. So we just recognize we’re not able to see all of the cases.

The same is true with influenza and with other diseases where they have really gone to a surveillance reporting, so, looking at the overall state and getting a sampling to have a good sense of what’s happening with that disease progression. And then we use those numbers in combination with other things, like you mentioned hospitalization data, what we call syndromic surveillance data, [which is] how many people are showing up to the emergency department and being diagnosed with COVID, being diagnosed with influenza, or showing up with symptoms that looks similar to that. So we want to make sure that we’re taking all of those things into consideration.

CS: In Juneau, some people are calling this moment a “wave” of cases. A noticeable number of people are getting sick. And I’m wondering if you’re seeing that in other parts of the state or if the Juneau wave is showing up in data at all.

AZ: I think that, you know, a wave is definitely showing up in the media, and it is showing up a little bit in the data. But we’ve had other waves like this in other parts of the state. But you know, this is a time when a lot of people’s eyes are on Juneau, given the legislative session. So I think there’s a little bit of extra attention and focus in that region right now.

But we’ve seen this since the beginning of the pandemic, where, particularly with delta and then omicron, it just moves so fast that it will kind of sweep through a town or a region very, very quickly, just because it’s so transmissible. And then it moves to another region and moves to there.

I’ve often described it kind of like popcorn in our state. And so one region explodes with cases and then another one explodes with cases. But what we’re looking at in the state is kind of that sound overall. And then when it settles down, you can hear the individual pops a little bit easier. And so we kind of settle down, and so you’re hearing that Juneau pop I think a little bit more than you’re hearing the pops across other places.

CS: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Maybe anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share or think is important.

AZ: Thanks for asking that. I think a lot of people ask like, “What should I do at this point in the pandemic?” And I think that the basics still apply. The biggest thing you can do is take care of your physical and mental health. It will make you more prepared to take on this virus or other things. So get outside, enjoy the sun, play, eat well. You know, the best source of vitamin D that we get is actually salmon in the state. That’s where the majority of us get it. So eating a balanced diet is incredibly important.

Two, making sure that you have a degree of protection. And the best way you can do that is getting vaccinated and staying up to date. And then you know, knowing that we’ve got treatments available, knowing that we have different resources.

Your masks work. Treatments make a huge difference. Make sure that if you are going to be going someplace high risk and you’re at risk, [that you’re] wearing a mask, using testing, and if you test positive, consider treatment. So just, the same tools apply, we just need to continue to use them and continue to build our overall health and wellbeing.

CS: Dr. Zink, thank you so much.

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