Health officials across the state say wearing a face covering has been proven to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses like COVID-19, and are effective in closed, indoor spaces.
“They appear to be an effective tool as source control,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Wednesday at a House Health and Social Services Committee meeting. “They offer some protection for the individual as well, to have more people wearing it particularly in close spaces is an effective tool.”
Committee members met telephonically with Zink and other representatives from the Department of Health and Social Services, including Commissioner Adam Crum, for an update on the state’s health care capacity.
The state has built up its health care capacity, Crum said, and was currently able to handle an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Zink told the committee the state reported Wednesday 21 new COVID-19 cases in the state, seven of which were out of state. None of the cases were in Juneau.
“We put in place certain requirements for Alaskans to keep the spread down as we bought time to build our health care capacity,” Crum said. “We got supplies built up and we started to pull back some of those mandates.”
The state has put out health care guidelines that businesses are following, Crum said, adding that while the state is seeing increased caseloads, only .44% of tests are coming back positive.
“Now that we’re testing people, percent positive is what we’re really focusing on,” Crum said.
But some lawmakers have accused the governor of taking too relaxed an approach to managing the pandemic. On June 2, House Democrats issued a letter calling for Gov. Mike Dunleavy to mandate cloth face coverings in public. That call was made again Wednesday by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, who chairs the Health and Social Services Committee.
Zulkosky pressed Crum about at what point the state would step in with a mandate given the high risk in many rural communities.
“Contract tracing is burdening local agencies,” Zulkosky said. “We’re seeing continual spikes, at what point is the department going to step in?”
Crum said recommendations are in place and people and companies are making decisions to comply with those guidelines.
“You’ve seen the setups that we have for interstate travelers as they come in, (those guidelines) are being abided by and complied with,” Crum said. “We do have an investigations email, local officials have our contact information.”
The governor has said repeatedly he wants to take a hands-off approach to health regulations, providing people with information and relying on them to make the best decisions for themselves.
“We know there are businesses that require (face coverings), that’s their choice. There are Alaskans who will wear them, that’s their choice,” Dunleavy said at a June 10, press conference.
Asked if she would support a mask mandate Zink said she supported having people wear masks, but that mandates have limited impact.
“From a health perspective, my goal is to have as many people wearing masks as possible when social distancing isn’t possible,” she said. “Broad mandates have limited impact. You really get your biggest bang for your buck (from mandates) in the first wave. You have to find other ways. People lose patience, there’s an economic impact. What we’re trying to do is have a very surgical approach.”
Asked again about a mask mandate, Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner in an email referred the Empire to Health Alert 10, enacted April 3, which highly recommends wearing a mask at all times while in public.
Local health care workers are concerned people aren’t complying with the recommendations as well as they should, and that could cause problems for Juneau’s health care capacity.
Charlee Gribbon, infection preventionist for Bartlett Regional Hospital, said she and other health care workers are worried about what they see around town.
“Hospital staff and health care workers are frustrated at the general public not following the science and the general health care recommendations that are given out by the CDC,” Gribbon said. “We have a higher standard to protect ourselves and when we’re part of the community we want to see that standard in the community.”
Gribbon admitted the difficulty in getting people to comply with a mandate, and that social distancing guidelines can be costly for certain businesses such as bars and restaurants. But, she said, business and government leaders could be holding people to a higher standard.
“Business and leaders in the community can hold the people they have influence and leadership over and have higher standards, we can have leaders say this is what they’re going to do,” Gribbon said.
She said a mask mandate could be similar to dog-leash laws, where they exist but are loosely enforced.
“If you have a problem you can bring it up the chain because you have some support,” Gribbon said. “Having that support at multiple levels, you have more people adhering to it.”
During the meeting, Zink told the committee roughly one-in-three Alaskans had an underlying health condition which put them at heightened risk for COVID-19. Gribbon said that even if people themselves weren’t at risk, they could be coming in close contact with those who were.
“This is not an individualized, isolated cluster of infections, it’s got a long-range infection period,” she said. “It’s not about you, it’s you being part of this group. You just don’t know how close you are to someone who could die from the virus.”
On Monday, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members will consider an ordinance requiring face coverings only for the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display, according to Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove. This is currently no legislation regarding face coverings before the Assembly, Cosgrove said.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.