As cases of illness caused by the novel coronavirus continue to climb in Alaska, members of the Homer City Council again got to hear from the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.
Zink spoke to the council virtually via Zoom at the body’s Monday meeting. Council members asked her what more can be done, both locally and on a state level, to ensure communities are protected from the spread of the virus.
Mayor Ken Castner and other council members expressed frustration with mixed or lackluster messaging coming from the state in regard to keeping communities safe. They asked her what more can be done.
Zink revisited advice she gave the council the last time she spoke at a meeting, which is that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he wants individual municipalities to be able to have the tools they need. Homer as a city does not have the legal authority to mandate the wearing of face coverings, but Zink said they could appeal to the state if it’s something the council wanted.
“So if you don’t feel like you’ve got the legal authority to (do) it, you know, a letter from your council to the governor is a place to be able to start,” she said.
Zink said history has shown that when it comes to public health emergencies, people only tolerate mandates for so long, after which they start becoming ineffective. The way to move forward is to encourage people to take up mitigation strategies like social distancing themselves.
Castner said the city felt like it was being led into summer with three mitigation policies from the state: quarantine, testing and social distancing.
“I’m not sure that we’ve hit the mark on any of those three things, but that was the strategy, were those three items,” Castner said. “So, choose one — can we do any of them better?”
Zink said that testing is not a perfect strategy and that the state is still looking for ways to improve. At the same time, Alaska is the eighth-most tested state in the country right now, she reported.
“(In) some communities it’s very accessible — they’ve tested the whole community,” she said. “Some communities it’s incredibly limited. We’re always trying to overcome those barriers to get there easier.”
Zink said testing can be improved with things like pop-up testing sites and expanded testing opportunities, like South Peninsula Hospital offered on the Homer Spit. Zink said she’s heard from someone on the northern peninsula who said they wanted their community to be tested at the same level that Homer is.
“I think it all speaks to the fact that testing is an important tool, but it’s a limited tool and isn’t perfect anywhere,” she said. “It’s trying to make a test universally available in a fractured health care system, and that’s what we have.”
Zink said the focus needs to be swift and barrier-free testing for people who develop symptoms, as well as testing of vulnerable populations. Looking at the data for the southern peninsula, Zink said she thinks Homer is testing at a good level.
Council member Donna Aderhold asked for more consistency from the state in terms of messaging.
“Getting that messaging out, very positive messaging on why this is important and how we’re protecting each other, and what we can do, you know from the state administration all the way down would really help us,” she said. “And I’m not feeling that from the state anymore. It feels like the administration is saying ‘open isn’t over’ but they’re not walking that talk very well.”
Zink said messaging “has become increasingly challenging as everyone is kind of going back to their normal patterns of life, and so we’re trying to find new ways.” She said the front page of the governor’s website was being changed to be more consistent, and that the state had recently rolled out a program specifically to encourage businesses to be “COVID conscious.”
Council member Heath Smith agreed with the need for consistent messaging and added that it should include a factor of dispelling myths around mitigation measures like the wearing of face coverings.
Smith brought up another concern: how to ensure travelers entering Alaska are doing what’s required of them to keep Alaskans safe. Smith said he had recently hosted a man in his home who had flown to Alaska from Seattle to fish.
Smith said he asked the man how his screening and testing at the Ted Stevens International Airport had gone.
“And he goes, ‘oh, well I just acted like I knew what I was doing and grabbed my stuff and left.’ And so that concerns me that, you know, people may feel like they don’t have time to do that,” Smith said. “But, you know, then I have this person in my home who I invited … to him it wasn’t important but yet now my house was subjected to, you know, somebody who didn’t feel like it was important enough to do. And it was that easy.”
Zink said data does show a gap between the number of travelers entering the state and the number getting fully screened. For example, she shared that 12,044 people had been screened at airports in Alaska the prior week. Of those, 11,084 people had complete data immediately available and were able to do a full screening.
“So you can see there, there’s a gap already between all the travelers that came in and how many people had arrived and completed the full screening,” she said.
Zink said the state wants to work to decrease that gap, but did not give specifics.
Part of the traveller issue also comes down to messaging, Zink said. She said the state is getting multiple stories about people entering Alaska for fishing or with the lodging industry who are bypassing the screening. So, the state is working with the Alaska Travel Industry Association, specifically the lodging sector, Zink said, to impress upon them the importance of making sure their guests get screened on arrival.
Zink said she understands that people are getting tired of living with the pandemic, and that she, too, sometimes wishes it was over. However, the disease sets the timetable, Zink said, not Alaskans.
“Every single case is one more case than I would like to see,” Zink said. “… Because as we’ve seen in other states, you can go from OK to not OK in a very short period of time.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.