Reaching herd immunity without a vaccine is not a realistic answer for Alaska

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

Programming note: I’ve been slammed with end-of-month deadlines and a personal project that have been consuming a lot of time and energy this week. Not sure I’ve got enough to say this week that would warrant the usual column but wanted to draw some attention to this bit from this week’s House Health and Social Services meeting, particularly as Alaska is starting to stare down the possibility of mandated collective responsibility. Have a nice weekend, y’all. 


Cases of COVID-19 in Alaska are continuing the upward march regardless of however much we’ve all decided we’re over the pandemic. Thursday marked the highest single-day count of new cases and the combined cumulative count for residents and non-residents crossed 1,000 today.

Public policy is finally focusing in on the question of what the role state and local governments should have in taking public health measures—specifically face masks in public places—from the strongly recommended to the mandatory.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz today heeded the numbers and growing advice of medical workers, legislators and economists in announcing a mask mandate that’ll go into effect on Monday morning, requiring those who can wear face masks to wear them in indoor public spaces, while the governor’s administration has dodged on the question.

What’s clear, though, is that some suggestions that letting the virus run its course to reach herd immunity, when enough people have achieved immunity either through vaccination or exposure to the virus so it cannot easily spread, is not a realistic solution for Alaska.

Alaska State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin told legislators during Wednesday’s hearing that the science is still not well-understood on COVID-19 but that current thinking would require several hundred times more cases than Alaska currently has.

“We think that herd immunity is probably going to result when about 60 to 70 percent of the population becomes immune to the virus, it may be a little bit lower than that it may be a little bit higher than that. But at this point, Alaska has a long way to go to reach herd immunity,” he said. “We’ve had 778 reported cases to date and even if that’s a tenfold underestimate of the true burden of COVID-19 in Alaska thus far, that still puts us at about 1 percent of our population.”

Hitting 70% of the population would require more than 500,000 Alaskans be exposed to COVID-19 through direct infection with the virus–a number that would push Alaska’s health system far beyond its limits–or a vaccination. Alaska’s ICU bed capacity is currently at 42% full and 30 of 347 ventilators are in use, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

The dashboard as of 6 p.m. Jun 26, 2020.

McLaughlin said there have been studies in the Lower 48 that suggest the actual number of cases may be more than 10 times higher than what was reported but noted that COVID-19 has hit communities differently. Alaska, he said, has had far better testing and contract tracing than when compared to other states, which would suggest Alaska is better at identifying the cases it does have.

“We really don’t know what the true proportion is of Alaskans have been infected with COVID-19, all we know is what the reported cases show, which is 778 cases. That’s about .1 percent of the population,” he said, later adding, “We feel as though we’ve been able to get a pretty good handle on the situation but do recognize that there are probably a number of cases that had occurred that have gone undetected.”

He noted that those that have gone undetected were likely asymptomatic, though they could still be infectious.

As for a vaccine, McLaughlin sounded hopeful that one could be created in the next year but warned that it will likely take additional time for it to be rolled out. He said high-risk populations would likely be prioritized to get it first.

After the meeting, Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who’s warned the state’s reopening has given a false impression that the virus is over, renewed the call for the governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“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,” she said. “It’s clear that additional resources are also needed to enforce health mandates across Alaska to keep rural communities safe during this time.”

Republicans friendly to Gov. Mike Dunleavy also released a statement praising the administration’s response to the virus and criticized “some legislators” for pushing their pro-mask agenda.

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