6 tips from Alaska medical experts about minimizing your risk as the state reopens

Anchorage businesses are reopening after coronavirus-related restrictions shut them down for weeks. Polar Bear Gifts in downtown Anchorage welcomed customers on Friday, May, 22, 2020.(Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska is reopening. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has removed state restrictions for businesses, and is allowing for larger groups. Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has also lifted local capacity limits on businesses in the state’s largest city.

Dunleavy and Berkowitz have cited a low number of coronavirus cases and increased healthcare capacity as some of the reasons to open back up.

Read more about the coronavirus, politics, culture and the economy in Alaska.

But, even though the state has one the country’s lowest rates of infection per capita, the virus is still here and Alaskans should make plans for how to re-enter social settings based on their individual circumstances, doctors say. 

There are no easy answers. And there’s no playbook. But, medical experts do have tips for what Alaskans should consider as the state reopens:

1. Think of the coronavirus as a bear in the woods — seriously.

Dr. Tom Hennessy has a very Alaska analogy to explain how people can think about the coronavirus: 

“It’s like you’re taking a walk in the woods, and just because you don’t see a bear, doesn’t mean the bear isn’t there,” he said. “And the bear, in this case, is the coronavirus, and it’s out there. So we need to be aware of that and take precaution.”

Hennessy is an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

When Alaskans go hiking, he said, they know they may run into a bear, so they prepare: Carrying bear spray or a firearm, making noise and traveling in groups. Now, Alaskans leaving their homes need to be prepared for the lurking coronavirus — which is harder to see than a bear and can spread silently.

“We are not in a risk-free environment. The virus hasn’t gone away. It’s still out there. There are still people walking among us who are infected with it and are transmitting to other people,” Hennessy said. “So it would be foolish for people to assume we could just go back to the way life was before this virus visited us… The bear is still in the woods.” 

2. Age and underlying medical conditions are key considerations.

Alaskans should consider their own health risks, plus the risks of those they see often.

“We’re entering a phase where people really need to individually assess their own personal risk and the risk of others they come in close contact with,” said Dr. Michelle Rothoff, a medical epidemiologist at the state Department of Health and Social Services.

People age 65 and over are at a higher risk of developing severe illness from the coronavirus, and of dying from the disease. Those with underlying medical conditions like serious heart problems and lung disease are too.

So, if that’s you or someone you live with or see regularly, then you should be “extremely, extremely careful” about who you’re interacting with, Hennessy said. 

“If that healthy person brings the infection home to their vulnerable family member, they could cause a catastrophic illness,” he said.

3. Start small. 

The basic rule is: The more different people that you’re exposed to, the higher your potential risk is, Rothoff said.

As Alaskans start to regrow their social circles, they should consider expanding slowly, she said.

“Start by maybe incorporating a few additional friends or family members outside of the immediate household that are kind of consistent,” she said. 

That way, everyone also knows what precautions the others in the group are taking. 

And, consider how long you’re around other people and where you are. Outdoors is generally better than indoors. There’s more air flow, Rothoff said. But, if you’re spending all evening outside in a large group, your risk rises.

4. Do your research.

Before you go to a restaurant, bar, hair salon, gym or other business, research what new protocols the owners have put in place in response to the pandemic, Hennessy said.

Look online. Or call ahead. Then, decide if you’re comfortable with the measures.

“If a business decides to take the reopening of the economy and just pack people into their restaurant or bar, without any concern for these social-distancing measures, that would be a really high-risk setting compared to a restaurant where they appropriately space the tables, where the waitstaff are wearing masks, where there’s hand-washing facilities easily available to customers,”  Hennessy said. 

Hennessy said he’d feel much more comfortable going to a business following social-distancing guidelines, and where employees are wearing masks. 

Other questions to consider: How long are you spending in the business? How many others will be there, and in how big of a space? 

5. Masks are still a good idea.

Masks that cover your nose and mouth help keep large droplets from spraying out when you cough or sneeze or even talk loudly, said Dr. Michael Bernstein, regional chief medical officer for Providence Health and Services Alaska. 

Wearing a mask is particularly important with the coronavirus because people can be very infectious while not showing symptoms, Bernstein said. While Bernstein doesn’t wear a mask when walking his dog in empty areas, he said, he does generally wear one otherwise.

“It’s not that hard,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m, you know, being restricted terribly. I think anything I can do to help reduce that transmission, I should.” 

Hennessy put it another way: “The masks that we wear in public — at the grocery store or in a crowded location — are really for us to protect other people. And so not wearing a mask is kind of a statement that you don’t really care about other people.”

6. It’s not time to let your guard down: Social distancing and handwashing are still critical.

Rothoff said she really wants to emphasize that even though businesses are opening back up, keeping a distance from others is critical so coronavirus cases don’t spike.

She pointed to a graphic that shows if Alaskans decrease their social exposure by 75%, one infected person leads to about three other infections in 30 days. If no one follows social distancing, that one infection leads to more than 400 others with the virus in the same time period.

“So social distancing is really important,” Rothoff said.

So is washing your hands, she said. And not touching your face. 

The goal is to keep the number of coronavirus cases manageable, Hennessy said. With restrictions lifting, he said, it’s now up to Alaskans.  

“The governor has turned it back to the people of Alaska and said, ‘It’s up to you. You’ve learned about this. We expect you to act responsibly,’” Hennessy said. “So it will be a test for all of us to see if we just throw caution to the wind… or if Alaskans will take the measures they’ve learned and continue to apply them.” 

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.