As Alaska’s professionals in health care and public health, we are alarmed by the increasing number of Alaskans who have become ill with Covid-19. We urge Alaskans to act now to stop the spread of the virus and to protect the vulnerable. We recommend a few simple, effective steps (vaccination and mask use) that we can take right now to bring the epidemic under control and prevent further suffering.
First, it’s important to know that the Covid-19 situation has changed for the worse. Over the past month Covid-19 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 have been rising. Nearly everyone infected in Alaska has the new Delta variant of the virus. This virus spreads much more easily from person-to-person and may cause more serious illness than earlier virus types.The Delta variant is almost as contagious as chickenpox but is much more dangerous. Delta is more contagious than the common cold, seasonal flu, Ebola or smallpox. Because of this new variant, we must increase our attention and efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Second, the groups who are most at-risk for Covid-19 hospitalization and death have changed. Earlier in the epidemic, the elderly and those with medical problems were at greatest risk. Many of those people have been protected by vaccination. Now in Alaska, it is unvaccinated people who are at greatest risk for getting ill and dying from Covid-19. A report by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services showed that in 2021, 97% of Covid deaths and 96% of persons hospitalized with Covid-19 were not fully vaccinated. Children under 12 years are a vulnerable unvaccinated population.
What can individual Alaskans do about these changes in the Covid-19 epidemic? The most important action is to get vaccinated as soon as possible, if you are eligible. Safe and effective vaccines are widely available and free to everyone age 12 years and older. Vaccination reduces your risk of getting sick and reduces the chance you will pass infection on to family and friends who may be at risk. Only about half of all eligible Alaskans are fully vaccinated. We need to do better. The arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant means that we need the highest possible vaccination coverage to stop Covid-19.
The next thing Alaskans can do is to wear a facial covering (masks) in indoor public spaces and practice safe social distancing. Although the vaccines are highly effective, no vaccine provides 100% protection. Having several layers of protection (vaccination, masks, social distancing, hand washing) is the best way to avoid getting infected or spreading the virus to others.
There is an urgent need to increase Covid-19 vaccination among all eligible Alaskans. Some health care facilities and nursing homes are taking action by requiring vaccination. All branches of the military will require Covid-19 vaccination for all troops by mid-September in order to assure a healthy and ready workforce. We urge other businesses, universities and schools to act to protect their staff, students and clients from Covid-19. They can recommend Covid-19 vaccine to staff and employees and consider offering vaccines at the workplace, offering incentives for vaccination or giving employees time off to receive the vaccine. Businesses can consider implementing vaccine requirements for employees.
Community-wide mask requirements have been used in Alaska and elsewhere and have been shown to work by increasing mask use and decreasing Covid-19 illnesses. With our surge in illnesses and hospitalizations, universal mask requirements in schools, businesses and public settings should be reconsidered and applied wherever possible.
We have learned a lot about fighting Covid-19 since March 2020. We know we should get tested and stay home if we become ill with Covid-19 symptoms to avoid infecting other people. If the test is positive, we should follow public health and medical guidance. We also now know that vaccinations and masks work to prevent Covid-19. Although the recent surge of illnesses and hospitalizations is a challenge, we can respond by using these tools more effectively. By getting vaccinated and increasing mask use, Alaskans can protect ourselves while safeguarding our families, friends, businesses and schools.