Alaska’s top doctor says we can’t allow the number of COVID-19 cases to grow unchecked

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference on COVID-19 in Anchorage on March 26. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink spoke remotely and appeared on a TV screen to the governor’s right. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Alaska Governor’s Office)

UpdateAndrew Kitchenman, KTOO and Alaska Public Media

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

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 against this argument during a news briefing on Wednesday.

For one thing, no demographic is safe from the disease. Zink noted that more than a quarter of people hospitalized with the disease in the U.S. had no underlying conditions or were not considered high-risk.

“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 percent. In Alaska, that would be more than 500,000 people.

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

Original story — Ryan Cunningham, KTOO

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s latest COVID-19 news conference is scheduled for 5 p.m.

The governor, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink have been holding these briefings almost daily since March 10.

Usually, members of the Dunleavy administration share updates on the number of people in the state with confirmed cases, announce public health mandates and explain the administration’s strategy and rationale.

State health officials announced Wednesday that four more Alaskans, all from the Municipality of Anchorage, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the state’s total number of recorded cases to 355. Of those, 240 patients have recovered.

Wednesday’s updated data shows that 14 Alaskans are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19. The total confirmed number of Alaskans who have died from the disease remains at nine.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, more than a million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the United States. The number of U.S. deaths now exceeds 60,000.

To combat the spread of the virus, the Dunleavy administration has imposed numerous public health mandates that have reshaped daily life across Alaska. Those mandates and other Alaska-specific COVID-19 resources and information are available at coronavirus.alaska.gov.

Last week, the Dunleavy administration began the first phase of a gradual plan to reopen Alaska’s economy. Dine-in restaurants, retail stores, hair salons and other businesses that were previously ordered closed were allowed to reopen under certain restrictions.

At the most recent news briefing on Monday, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan joined via video conference to discuss a CARES Act provision for seasonal workers. It was the second time Alaska’s senators have appeared at the governor’s daily briefing. The CARES Act was a focal point for their March 30 appearance as well, with U.S. Rep. Don Young joining Sullivan and Murkowski. Young did not appear at Monday’s briefing.

You can watch Wednesday’s news conference live on this post, the governor’s Facebook or Livestream pages, or on 360 North television.

The headline for this story has been updated.