Athletics and group activities were a big part of my life growing up in Homer. The thrill of success for your team and teammates were regularly celebrated with high-fives, chest bumps and huddles — all of which required closeness and nothing about physical distancing. So I felt for Alaska’s kids who struggled during this pandemic as their sports teams paused practices, they missed games and lost chances to play together.
Summers as a kid meant fishing with my family for halibut and filling the boat up with salmon. I know many Alaskans suffered the disappointment last summer of canceling special family outings and overnight or day camps.
We know the value of playing together, staying active, and feeding our families healthy meals — but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy this past year. The pandemic has made it much harder for many Alaskans to make the healthy choices we all want for our families. When the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services surveyed families during the pandemic, 7 out of 10 families said their children were getting less physical activity and 6 out of 10 said their family’s mental health was suffering.
To support families, my department is organizing efforts to make it easier and more affordable for Alaskans to be active and to buy fruits and vegetables at lower costs. We’re working with grocery stores, farmers markets and state programs. As one example, Alaska’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program will use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help families increase their WIC benefits to buy more fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. This is in addition to the coupons some WIC-enrolled families already receive to buy local produce at farmers markets. These efforts will help Alaska families, farmers and local stores.
This pandemic year has reinforced the value of being healthy. Across the nation and within our state, we’ve seen that it’s been much harder for people to fight COVID-19 if their overall health was already taxed by smoking or having chronic diseases. Chronic diseases include type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other conditions that can go on for a long time and often don’t go away completely.
Two out of three Alaska adults have chronic diseases and related behaviors that can be prevented and managed. The good news is being physically active, choosing healthy foods and drinks, maintaining a healthy weight, and never smoking are linked to reducing the chances of developing chronic diseases.
Physical and mental health are tied together. Healthy choices can often improve both. Eating fruits and vegetables helps prevent chronic diseases and has also been shown to help us fight off more immediate illnesses like COVID-19. We might make it a priority to walk every day, play outside with our kids or head to the gym because it’s good for our bones, muscles and heart health. But it’s also essential for our mental health. Being active helps us feel less anxious and depressed. Just one session of activity can improve sleep that night.
As the summer continues, I’m hopeful Alaska kids will be able to return to the activities they’ve been missing. On May 12, 2021, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for use and recommended for kids ages 12 to 15. We have enough shots to fully vaccinate all 40,000 of them right now. Once fully vaccinated, kids can play sports and be active and no longer need to quarantine if they get exposed to someone with COVID-19. Vaccination means play doesn’t have to stop this summer.
These are just a few ways we’re investing in Alaska families to make it easier for them to take healthy actions that will help them feel better now and for years to come. It will also cut their long-term health care costs and, in turn, can reduce costs on the Medicaid system that pays more than half a billion dollars every year to treat Alaskans with chronic diseases.
We’ll continue to work with partners across the state and the Legislature to make sure incoming federal stimulus dollars are used to improve the health of all Alaskans through new initiatives that help them stay active, eat nutritious foods and live their healthiest lives.
Adam Crum, M.S.P.H., is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.