COVID-19 Update: Alaskans are encouraged to wear masks

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

The reach of COVID-19 continues to grow in Anchorage and other parts of Alaska, including Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau. The total number of recorded cases is 272 as of April 12, and there have been eight deaths in Alaska. Community spread of the virus is evident, according to the State of Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. Zink stresses the importance of knowing how efficient COVID-19 is at spreading.

“I think we all need to assume at this time that this is amongst our communities for the most part, and even boroughs and communities that have not been identified. You know, this was once a disease in one country, and now it’s around the world. It spreads quickly, it spreads easily, it spreads without knowing,” Zink said in an article in the Anchorage Daily News published on April 8.

The latest in-state death is of a Fairbanks woman in her 70s, who died on April 10. No other information is available about her death at this time. The other death is of a female Anchorage resident in her 40s, who was hospitalized on April 5 and died on April 7. Officials believe she contracted the disease locally, according to an article in the Anchorage Daily News published on April 9. The majority of the other deaths in Alaska were of residents in their 60s, two of which occurred out of state in Washington.

In Alaska, there are 31 hospitalizations and 66 of the 272 cases have been classified as recovered by the State of Alaska, as of April 12. So far, 8,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Alaska. Social distancing and other measures to flatten the cur of the infection rate are still in effect. Additional guidelines have been suggested by The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, such as wearing cloth masks as much as possible when going outside.

In a press conference held on April 2, Zink encouraged Alaskans to wear homemade masks when leaving their homes.

“We’re encouraging people — if you’re going to go out in public, if you’re going to go to the grocery store — to consider wearing a tightly-woven homemade mask to be able to minimize the spread in case you are asymptomatic or early symptomatic,” Zink said.

Masks serve to protect others from respiratory droplets of people who may be infected. However, they are not readily available for purchase in the United States, as most states have a shortage of medical supplies and hospitals are lacking necessary personal protective wear, according to The World Health Organization. The CDC has a tutorial on their website on how to make a face mask at home.

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The New York Times says that some of the best materials to make homemade masks include t-shirts. NYT also provides a guide on its website with videos and tutorials on how to make masks at home. The NYT also includes a tutorial demonstrating the proper way to wear homemade face masks.

New research on COVID-19 shows that the virus may pread via aerosol. This means ultrafine particles, along with respiratory droplets, are released when people who are infected talk or breathe.  Dr. Harvey Fineberg, chairman of a committee with the National Academy of Sciences, wrote a letter to The White House on April 9 about new research that demonstrates this method of transmission.

“While the current [COVID-19] specific research is limited, the results of available studies are consistent with aerosolization of viruses from normal breathing,” Fineberg said in the letter.

The study mentioned in the letter was conducted at The University of Nebraska Medical Center and revealed the presence of viral RNA in patients’ rooms infected with COVID-19. Air collectors to detect positive samples of the virus were placed in the patients’ rooms more than 6 feet away from their beds and in the hallways outside their rooms. Both were tested positive for COVID-19.

The letter suggests that aerosols containing the virus were easily spread by air movement by medical staff or facility cleaners and spread outside the infected patients’ rooms.

What is known about COVID-19 is still evolving and more information about the virus appears almost daily. For up to date information about COVID-19 in Alaska, visit the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Coronavirus Response Hub or The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Alaskans can also call a Careline at 1-800-478-2221 or 211 with concerns related to COVID-19. Careline is a crisis hotline and is available 7–8 p.m., seven days a week. Updates on policies related to COVID-19 and information about the virus concerning UAA can be found at The University of Alaska Coronavirus website.