State officials say masks work but distance themselves from possible mandate

Dr. Anne Zink speaks during a news conference in early May 2020. (Photo by Governor's Press Office/Flickr)

Alaska’s public health officials told legislators widespread usage of masks will help combat the surge in COVID-19 but employed social distancing when it came to questions about a statewide mask mandate.

The House Health and Social Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday with Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink, Health Commissioner Adam Crum, Alaska State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin and several others to review the state’s efforts to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

“Regarding things like masking, the data is definitely moving in the direction that that is an important tool to help keep from a rapid spread and transmission of the disease,” Zink said, referencing new research that suggests masks are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19. “The goal is to have as many people wear them as possible. … It’s strongly recommended. The goal is to mitigate this disease and have the least impact on Alaskans and promote health and wellbeing.”

But would the state ever consider implementing a mask mandate for situations where social distancing isn’t possible as legislators, hundreds of public health workers and economists have suggested? And what kind of metrics would the state need to see to consider such a course of action?

Legislators asked several times and never got a clear response.

Instead, Crum focused on the discussion of potential travel bans to rural communities with limited health care capacities saying “they’re willing to have that conversation” while ignoring questions about a mask mandate.

“I guess I feel like my question has not been answered,” Zulkosky said.

Zink, who’s been a Dr. Anthony Fauci-like hero in Alaska for delivering a clear and science-based approach to the pandemic, also sidestepped the question of implementing mask mandate and instead spoke broadly about reimplementing the strict public health mandates, such as closing businesses, that the state used at the frontend of the pandemic.

“Regarding when we would mandate additional restrictions similar to what we’ve seen before. What we’ve seen from previous pandemics and epidemics is you really get the biggest bang for your buck on the first time,” she said, later adding, “The big, kind of broad-speaking mandates have limited effect for a limited period of time and so we’re trying to use a very strategic and geographical-responsive approach in as many ways as we can and use as many tools as we can to be able to mitigate this disease.”

Since lifting statewide shelter-in-place mandates that closed or limited businesses across the state, Alaska has seen a sharp increase in new cases that has far outpaced the early days of the pandemic. Today, Alaska logged its highest single-day case count with 46 new cases between 25 new resident cases and 21 non-resident cases and the total case count for Alaska residents is nearing in on 1,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly concerning for rural communities like Zulkosky’s home of Bethel where existing health care capacity is limited and where the impacts of the 1918 flu pandemic are still being felt. Many of the out-of-state cases have come from the state’s fishing industry, which has facilities dotted throughout rural communities in Alaska.

As for the high rate of cases in the industry, Crum said it’s a sign that the state’s testing and industry-run screenings are working as intended.

The meeting left many legislators’ questions unanswered and the department committed to a follow-up meeting with the committee in early July.

In a prepared statement after the hearing, Zulkosky thanked the department but called on them to set aside politics and do what’s right for public health.

“I’m grateful for the Department’s update on the public health emergency before us and that Dr. Anne Zink continues to express clear direction that simple measures like wearing face masks and physical distancing will make us less likely to get ourselves, our families, and our loved ones sick with COVID-19,” she said. “I encourage the State to take politics out of the equation and do what’s best for Alaskans by immediately issuing a temporary mandate that face masks are worn in public places where it’s difficult to maintain physical distance. It’s clear that additional resources are also needed to enforce health mandates across Alaska to keep rural communities safe during this time.”

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