How the ‘infodemic’ is playing out in Juneau


People, masked and unmasked, in downtown on Saturday, September 5, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
People, masked and unmasked, in downtown on Saturday, September 5, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

World leaders from the United Nations on down to individuals in Alaska communities are still working to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s the actual coronavirus to deal with, but there’s also a torrent of viral misinformation undermining the effort. And Juneau isn’t immune.

Donna Pratt was sick with COVID-19 for most of July. The 63-year-old Juneau woman could barely breathe on her own, was too weak to stand, and was in constant pain. She was scared for her life — and frustrated that others weren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

From her isolated hospital room with tubes in her nose, she opened up about how she felt. It was her sixth day in Bartlett Regional Hospital’s critical care unit.

“It is so hard. And I have nobody here with me. I’m by myself!” she said, between labored breaths and sobs. “I’m by myself and I’m fighting! I’m fighting for my life and I want to live!”

Her husband and son were also sick with COVID-19, but she had it the worst. She has asthma and lung disease.

Pratt also addressed some conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

“This is not a joke,” she said. “I am not being paid to do this as a hoax. This is real life. This is my real life.”

While Pratt struggled to breathe in her hospital bed, locals were sounding off in a public hearing about a proposal to mandate wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus. More than a third of the people who spoke opposed it. Some made misleading scientific claims.

Jessi Warmbrodt claimed the rapid rise in COVID-19 case counts in Alaska was due largely to more tests being done, and not the virus spreading.

But state data shows that at the time, the number of daily tests in Alaska had actually leveled off. And the percentage coming back positive was rising. Juneau, like the rest of the state, was at the peak of a second wave.

Stefann Paddock mentioned mask studies published pre-pandemic, “before it became political.”

“Even N95 masks don’t do anything,” he said. “The effectiveness hasn’t been shown. … And actually, cloth masks make things worse because it collects moisture, it houses bacteria, allows passage even better. Viruses are .1 microns across. Masks have holes in them, between the fabric that’s 100 microns across. So it doesn’t do anything.”

There is some good science about how ineffective cloth masks are for protecting the wearer. But there’s a mountain of scientific and anecdotal evidence — even cool, super slow-motion videos — showing how effective various masks are at protecting other people from the mask wearer.

And Paddock’s conclusion that viruses are too small to be stopped by masks is also wrong. Viruses move through air mostly in bigger respiratory particles that masks can block.

John Heueisen alleged the mask mandate was a politically motivated ploy to affect elections. He said the mandate could feed public fear, which could benefit one political side.

Tom Williams said the numbers didn’t warrant the mask mandate.

“Enough already,” Williams said. “As we test more and more people, we’re clearly seeing a higher infection rate. But what we are not seeing is a significant spike in the number of Juneau hospitalizations and deaths. … The point is, we’re doing fine with current and local restrictions.”

Donna Pratt said comments like these make her question others’ empathy.

“Makes me feel like, how could they not care about what’s gonna happen to their neighbor?” she said. “About what’s gonna happen to their child? About what’s gonna happen to the elder?”

She said without masks, more vulnerable people like her will catch COVID-19.

Pratt eventually pulled through and was discharged three and a half weeks after first developing symptoms. But she died on Sept. 4th, 2020. Her husband, Wilburt Pratt, said it was from an unrelated condition but that her bout with COVID-19 didn’t help.

And the Juneau Assembly wasn’t swayed. It voted unanimously to pass the mask mandate.

But the state’s top public health officials say that misinformation is a problem.

Coleman Cutchins is a clinical pharmacist who leads the state’s testing program.

“I mean, I think we live in a day and an age where there’s so much information,” Cutchins said. “We essentially all — most of us — carry the wealth of information on the internet around in our pocket. I think the really hard part is discerning what’s reliable information.”

He cited an alphabet soup of reliable sources.

“You know, the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, IDSA. You know, these are the reliable sources.”

That’s the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink speaks at a news conference on COVID-19 in Anchorage on March 25, 2020. (Creative Commons photo by Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said clear communication is especially important during a pandemic. She had a more optimistic take on the accessibility of information.

“Part of me has really enjoyed that aspect — while I don’t enjoy the kind of meaningful misinformation — I love all the citizen scientists out there figuring out, you know, PCR, and what that means, and incubation periods,” she said. “And asking such tremendously important questions and understanding what that looks like. Because, I think that the more that we’re educated as a public, the more that we’re willing to question our own beliefs and understand the data and science, and be able to move with the science together, the better off we’ll be able to respond not only to this pandemic but other scientific challenges.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said science is something everyone can hang their hats on.

“And that is something that’s so important to relay to everyone,” he said. “I think it’s very important, as citizen scientists, you know, all of us, going into this field of a lot of unknowns, to really have an open mind and humility going in.”

The state health officials spoke during an Aug. 26 panel discussion.

Juneau’s emergency mask mandate expires on Oct. 19.

Note: We’ve updated this story with news about Donna Pratt’s death and to correct the spelling of Jessi Warmbrodt’s name. 

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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