Unmasked

The CDC relaxed rules Thursday regarding face masks and social distancing for vaccinated Americans. 

Alaska health officials expressed their excitement about new CDC guidelines that don’t require fully vaccinated people to wear a mask or physically distance in most of settings. However, for communities with high virus transmission and low vaccination rates, the advice is to stay cautious and evaluate your risks.

Fully vaccinated people — those who completed their vaccination series more than two weeks ago — can now resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart in most indoors and outdoors settings, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are just happy to see this new guidance the CDC put out,” state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said during a Thursday news briefing.

McLaughlin explained that the recommendation update is coming in light of a national decrease in cases and more and more real-world data showing that vaccinated people are protected from the virus and are less likely to carry it to others.

Exceptions for the new CDC guidelines include settings where masks are required by federal, state, local or tribal laws and rules, including local business and workplace guidance. For example, masks are still required on planes, buses, trains and other modes of public transportation, as well as in health care facilities, correctional settings and homeless shelters, according to CDC.

Some fully vaccinated people might choose to continue wearing masks in other settings, too, “Just because of the low risk but the risk is still there for the breakthrough infection,” McLaughlin added.

“This is probably particularly true for people at higher risk of severe consequences, such as the elderly and people with more serious underlying medical conditions, such as immunocompromised conditions,” he said.

State Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink agreed that people who are vulnerable to the disease or live with someone who’s vulnerable or not yet vaccinated should evaluate their risks.

“Everybody needs to make those decisions on their own,” she said.

Places that are behind on their vaccination coverage but have a high viral spread are a setting where health officials suggest continuing masking.

“For anyone who lives in an area that has low vaccination uptake and a high case count, it may still make sense for you as a fully vaccinated person to wear a mask,” said DHSS epidemiologist Anna Frick. “And there are several areas in Alaska where these conditions would apply.”

The state of the virus

The Fairbanks North Star Borough reported 13 new cases on Wednesday — eight in Fairbanks and five in North Pole — continuing the trend down after an outbreak in previous weeks.

Four new positive Covid cases were reported in the Denali Borough over the past week, a slight increase from earlier weeks. It is worth noting that seasonal workers are beginning to arrive in the area and are getting tested in addition to local residents.

Statewide, the spread has been trending downward in past weeks, with Wednesday bringing 81 new cases.

“It’s been great to see double digits, not the triple digits, here recently, and unfortunately we still continue to see a trickle of deaths,” Zink said. “Primarily what we are seeing is that people who get it as well as hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated individuals across the state.”

The state of vaccinations

More than half of Alaska adults received at least one vaccine dose. For Fairbanks, this number is close to 44%, with almost 2,800 people getting vaccinated since the beginning of May.

“Our vaccine numbers continue to increase, even though we’ve been open to the 16 and above for some time,” Zink said. “In general I think it’s going well; it just takes a lot of time.”

Fairbanks vaccination events this weekend include Fairbanks Home and Outdoor Show at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds on Friday at 2 p.m.. Another clinic will take place at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In the Denali Borough, Horizon Medical is collaborating with the borough to operate upcoming vaccination clinics. The Pfizer vaccine will be available for teens age 12-15 at a vaccination clinic from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday at the Tri-Valley Community Center. Adults may also get vaccinations and they will have a choice of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Another vaccination clinic will be held at the same place and time on May 20.

Zink said that vaccination stays optional and she encourages everyone who has questions about the vaccines to reach out to the state health officials or doctors they trust.

“I really respect people’s decisions to get vaccinated and want to make sure they have accurate, timely, truthful information about what vaccines look like; their risk, consequences of Covid and any potential risk with the vaccine,” she said.

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.