Declining covid cases may mean a lot of things but it’s not a reason to ease up

The sign outside a restaurant in Girdwood reads "Your mask helps us stay open." (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

Alaska’s rate of new infections of covid-19 have been steadily declining since hitting a peak at the beginning of this month, registering the lowest case count in months today with 150 new resident cases.

Last week, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink told legislators she’s “cautiously optimistic” that the state is starting to slow community spread through effective mitigation efforts. Others have pointed out that the declining rate coincides with a steep decline in the number of overall tests taken (though the overall positivity rate—the portion of tests that come back positive—has also declined).

Regardless of the cause, the message from health officials is the same: It’s not time to let down your guard and the months ahead will still be incredibly challenging despite the initial rollout of vaccines.

A state guide released today encourages Alaskans to continue to limit their exposure to others this holiday season, warning that “The safest way to celebrate in person this year is at home with the people you live with” and that “A safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is coming soon, but this winter we must remain vigilant. Let’s gather safely this season so we don’t overwhelm Alaska’s health care system and we can all be together next year.”

This comes after a conservative effort over the weekend to defy Anchorage’s month-long ban on dine-in eating—which is one of the highest risk vectors for spreading the virus given confined spaces, prolonged exposure and the masklessness—by dining in at several restaurants.

It’s exactly the kind of behavior that Zink warned against in a hearing with legislators last week, noting that when people let up on mitigation efforts cases skyrocket.

“It’s a fragile, tentative decline at this point and that can change at any second. We’ve seen this with previous spikes where they come up, they flatten and then they just skyrocket right back up,” she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic and encouraging Alaskans to continue with mitigation efforts.”

Economists and other businesses have argued in favor of mitigation efforts as a pro-business effort to rebuild confidence among the public to go out and spend. Research has also suggested that very little of the economic damage has been caused directly by government mandates but instead by people voluntarily changing their habits out of concern about the virus.

“People know that it’s risky to go outside right now, to go to restaurants or bars or get your hair cut or go to the grocery store. And so they’re going to do things to protect themselves. Because people don’t like being sick,” Kevin Berry, a University of Alaska Anchorage economics professor, told the Anchorage Daily News earlier this year. “They don’t want to get potentially seriously ill and face long-term consequences or die, but they also don’t want to get sick at all. And so everybody is taking more precautions, and one of those is not going out to businesses.”

The Dunleavy administration has refused to implement statewide health mandates that would limit gatherings or mandate masks, instead pushing the decision to local governments. While Zink has not split from the administration on this point, she said last week that measures are working.

“This really highlights that mitigation works and so when people physically distance, wear their masks and don’t gather in groups, the cases go down,” she said. “When we get together and don’t follow those precautions, cases go up. … We’re seeing that start to pay off. For the first time in multiple months, we saw our Rt—the reproductive values—drop below one for a bit, which was just really fantastic.”

Today’s results include 83 cases in Anchorage, 13 in the Kusilvak Census Area, 7 in North Pole, 6 in Bethel, 6 in Fairbanks, 6 in Wasilla, 4 in Eagle River, 4 in Homer, 4 in Soldotna, 3 in Kodiak, 3 in Palmer, 2 in the Bethel Census Area, 2 in Delta Junction and one each in Chevak, Houston, Juneau, Nikiski, Nome, Sitka and Utqiaġvik. The state’s alert level is still high with 61.26 cases per 100,000.

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