Lifting health mandates could lead to virus ‘rebound’

Health experts warn of virus uptick

A quick return to business as usual could cause a significant uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases if not done properly, modeling from the University of Alaska Anchorage shows.

After months of shelter-in-place and social distancing orders, a sudden return to normal could lead to a large spike in cases as people come into contact with those who may still be contagious, according to the UAA College of Health, Division of Population Health Sciences and the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies.

That report modeled multiple possible outcomes based on different mitigation strategies such as a full lockdown, like in Italy, or a shelter-in-place order like in Alaska. But if Alaska’s health mandates were to be lifted all at once and without further mitigation strategies, that could cause the virus to spread again.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a press conference Monday that his administration would begin this week to look at ways to open “sectors” of Alaska’s economy. Dunleavy said the decisions would be data-driven and further discussion about what they may look like will happen during future evening press conferences.

The model’s shelter in place scenario “predicts very few cases while the response is in place, but shows a rebound in hospitalizations far exceeding capacity within a month after the mandate is removed, with no further measures put in place,” the report says.

With the current social distancing mandates in place and Alaskans doing a fairly good job at following them, Dr. Thomas Hennessy, director of the Arctic Investigations Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state should stay low.

The problem comes when those restrictions are lifted and people start going back to work, Hennessy said in an interview.

“Once we go back to normal mixing in our society those transmissions are going to increase,” Hennessy said. “We’re going to jump right back on the epidemic transmission train.”

Instead, policies should be lifted gradually and their effects studied, Hennessy said.

Dunleavy isn’t the only executive considering an approach toward normalcy. Governors across the country are starting to look at how and when they might try and resume business in their states, the New York Times reported, but there’s no indication when that might be.

According to the Times, President Trump said in a press conference Monday he had the authority to instruct governors when to reopen their states.

“When someone is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said.

While modeling is a useful tool, Hennessy warned against over-relying on their data.

“Every one of them is wrong in some way,” Hennessy said of various prediction models. “There’s a lot we don’t know. I look at all of these skeptically.”

Hennessy urged patience in lifting health mandates and said other countries’ experiences can serve as a guide.

“China’s three months ahead of us on this, we’re going to see what happens there,” Hennessy said. “We can use those experiences to make judgments for our own society.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

Information on the coronavirus is available from websites for the City and Borough of Juneau, the State of Alaska at coronavirus.alaska.gov and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with flu-like symptoms are encouraged to contact their health care provider.

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