The state of Alaska’s data on COVID-19 shows a much calmer picture of the pandemic now than at any point since it began.
COVID is blamed for just 1.8% of hospitalizations in the state, according to the Health Department’s numbers updated Tuesday, and COVID-related deaths are down to levels not seen since the virus reached Alaska in March 2020.
And yet, Alaskans are still getting COVID and, in some cases, trying to navigate life after testing positive. So what are people supposed to do with that information now?
Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink says that depends. COVID, she says, is still a part of our lives, and she’s not ready to declare victory just yet.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Zink: But the reality is it’s a very different virus now than it was three years ago. And so when we see people get it, it tends to be more like we would see with other viral illnesses, where someone might be older, immunocompromised, they’re more likely to get sick and associated with it. If they’re young and healthy, they tend to bounce back pretty quickly. And there’s always exceptions within that, but in general, it’s causing much less, just in general, harm for individuals, as well as in what we’re seeing in the emergency department.
Casey Grove: So what are people supposed to do at this point? And I guess the example I’m thinking of is, you know, in the past, if you had known contact with somebody that had tested positive, and they let you know, that you would then go get yourself tested, and there was kind of like a pretty routine set of protocols that people were doing that maybe now they’re not, is that fair to say? And what should someone in that situation do now in May of 2023?
AZ: Yeah, that’s a great question. I like to pull it back to kind of where we’ve been in the pandemic as a whole. So whenever you have a new virus, a new challenge, it’s kind of three basic steps that you want to do. The first is really delay the entrance of that virus into the community to be able to move into phase two, which is prepare for what that looks like. And then the third is to mitigate and to mitigate the response. So really, we’re in that mitigation strategy right now. And so, you know, it really depends on who you’re around and what your risk factors are. If you have a runny nose, cough, congestion, in general, taking care of your health, sleeping more, seeing how you feel, those things make a big difference, particularly if someone’s older or immunocompromised. It’s really important to get tested, because we have good treatments for COVID. So that’s the real reason to get tested right now, is to make sure you don’t spread it to someone who’s symptomatic or who’s vulnerable and could really get sick, or to be able to get treated if you’re older and immunocompromised. But you have to really start it within the first five days. So if someone’s older, immunocompromised, please get tested and consider treatment, because it can really reduce your risk of hospitalization and death.
CG: And then for somebody that maybe comes in contact with a known case, maybe they’re not going to be in contact with an elderly or, you know, at risk person, should they still get tested? Again, I ask that because it kind of disrupts their lives, right, to have a positive test, or it might, so should someone in that scenario get tested?
AZ: Yeah, it’s always this risk-benefit (analysis) of what happens. So, you know, I get exposed to someone who I know has COVID, again, I’m not gonna go see my mom right away without testing. And I might choose to work virtually if I can, versus not, or wear a mask when I’m around other people. So using that, and you can add a test as an additional tool, but everyone’s life is different. Some people really can’t remote work. Some people really can’t not go see the elderly, because they’re working with them on a regular basis. So if I am, you know, seeing people who are at risk and vulnerable, and I’ve been exposed, then I wear a mask, and I test as well. In the emergency department, I take care of persons all the time who are COVID positive. And so I’m constantly being exposed one way or another. And so I always wear a mask when I’m in that setting and that situation. And then if I become symptomatic I test, but I don’t test every time I see a COVID-positive patient, because I’ve got that level of protection. So it depends on, like, what your exposure looked like, how long you were exposed, what sort of additional protection you may or may not been using at that time.
CG: Gotcha. That just made me think of something. How many COVID tests do you think that you’ve taken?
AZ: A lot. I have no idea how many I’ve taken, and, knock on wood, I have never tested positive. So I have tested a lot. You know, before and after travel. A lot of federal government meetings required testing before and afterwards. I’ll test after I go to a big conference, and I’m presenting, a lot of people in the room where I’m presenting without a mask. And so low exposure in that space. I’ll test if I get, you know, a runny nose or cold or don’t feel well. But yeah, who knows? My husband’s tested positive, but somehow my girls and I have never tested positive. So yeah.
CG: So every indicator that is available for Alaska seems to, you know, if not indicate a downward trend, that we’ve reached a point where it’s maybe flattened out? And should we think about this like it’s just the common cold or the flu? And I mean, what do you expect in the near future? When can we kind of declare victory and say, “We beat this thing,” or it’s at least gone enough into the background that we don’t have to think about it as much?
AZ: Yeah, I think that we’re definitely at a point where it is not impacting our healthcare system in the same sort of way. And definitely during the Delta (variant surge), we pushed the hospital capacity for sure. But we are now at a point where we are not pushing our hospital capacity because of COVID. So from that sense, I do think that we are at a very different place, we have “flattened the curve,” and that since we’ve built up hospital capacity, and the cases are consistently staying below any kind of threshold to surge and to hit the hospital. So I think from a society perspective, that’s important. The virus part is kind of a more steady phase. Now it’s kind of unwinding all these structures of healthcare and society that kind of built to helps support the pandemic. That’s going to be the next kind of phase of this. And then I think we really need to do more to braid healthcare and public health together, so that we are better prepared for when, you know, we get something else, a new variant of this, or some other disease that could make people sick. That’s the goal. Like if we had had rapid, widely available testing and a good understanding this virus earlier on, it would have been much easier to be able to respond. But we really had to build all sorts of infrastructure that we did not have, prior to pandemic. You know, we put National Guard into our state lab to enter one test into three different systems. Like the amount of, lack of, infrastructure to respond was really the huge challenge at the beginning. And so that rebuilding, responding, is our next phase. I oftentimes say how we rebuild and respond out of this pandemic is going to be as important, if not more important, than how we responded. And that’s this next phase that we’re entering into.