Doctors, other providers ask Gov. Dunleavy to mandate wearing masks

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, center, takes a tour of the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on April 15, 2020.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, center, takes a tour of the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on April 15. On Monday, 167 health care providers sent a letter to Dunleavy asking him to mandate that Alaskans wear masks in businesses where keeping at least six feet away from others isn’t realistic. (Creative Commons photo by Alaska Governor’s Office)

A group of 167 doctors and other health care providers have asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to mandate that Alaskans wear face masks in businesses where keeping at least six feet away from others isn’t realistic. 

The governor isn’t making the change for now. 

The health care providers’ letter emphasized there’s growing evidence that masks reduce the spread of the disease. 

Dr. Megan Ritter, who wrote the letter along with Dr. Sarah Murphy, said that Dunleavy has already explained why people should wear masks.

“If we don’t get enough people to follow that — which I haven’t seen that it has been — then it will increase transmission and it does put our facilities at risk with increased caseloads,” she said. “And it does put our economy at risk, with potentially having to shut down again.”

Both doctors live and work in Anchorage — Ritter is a pathologist and Murphy is a family doctor. 

Ritter said Dunleavy’s hunker down mandate that closed many businesses in late March was effective. But after the governor lifted those restrictions, far fewer Alaskans are wearing masks. 

Along with Murphy, Ritter asked other healthcare providers to sign on last weekend, and sent the letter on Monday. 

“What I was really hoping is that we could get a jump on this and maybe prevent a lot of suffering,” she said.

Most signers are doctors, but the list also includes nurses, physician assistants and other providers.

Ritter said there’s a misunderstanding that requiring masks will hurt businesses. She said the virus spreading will hurt more. 

“We want Alaska to thrive,” Ritter said. “We want businesses to be able to stay open and we want employees to stay healthy.”

Ritter said the decision on masks should be based on medical science. 

“And that’s why I don’t want it to be political — I just want to put out there this is another option,” she said. “Please consider it. It’s pretty simple and it seems to be highly effective, as best we can tell.”

So far, Dunleavy hasn’t changed his mind. In a news conference on Wednesday, he walked through his own approach to masks. 

“If it were me and I’m going to go into an environment where there are seniors or are those folks that may have underlying health conditions, I’ll wear a mask,” he said. 

But he said he won’t speak through a mask when he’s invited to speak at a get-together.

Dunleavy wants each person to decide. 

“I think we do best when we give Alaskans information, ask them to use their best judgment in the situations that we’re in,” he said. “And I think … we’re probably going to get better outcomes there.” 

And Dunleavy said health providers aren’t united on masks.

“There are doctors all over the map on this issue,” he said. “And I have friends that are doctors. I have friends that are physicians assistants. I have family members that are docs: different opinions on this.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, people older than 2 should wear cloth face coverings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. 

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Doctor Anne Zink also has advocated wearing a mask. In a series of tweet Zink wrote that she wears a mask in public to practice humility, since she doesn’t know if she has the virus — and it’s clear people can spread it before they have symptoms. 

She said she wants to be kind, and doesn’t know if a person she’s near has a child battling cancer, or cares for an elderly mother. And she wants her community to thrive and businesses to stay open. 

Ritter said the doctors will continue to urge the governor to consider a mandate on masks as he weighs the information that comes into him each day. She said 40 more providers have signed the letter since Monday.  

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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