Masking and capacity restrictions slowed the Delta variant in Juneau, expert says

sign on a window says "masking required"
City buildings are requiring masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people on Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Alaskans are getting COVID-19 at a faster rate than any other state in the nation — case rates are nearly double last December’s peak.

The impacts of the delta variant became stark in mid-August. And in most parts of the state case counts just continue on that upward trend.

But Juneau’s data sticks out.  In mid-August, its case counts started to go down.

“That downswing started about two weeks after the level-three mandate of reduced capacity and masking,” said Jonathan King, an Anchorage-based economist. He’s spent his pandemic days poring over state data.

In late July, Juneau brought its mask mandate back, and in early August it limited capacity at bars and restaurants among other restrictions. King says what happened next looks like a data confirmation that those mitigation mandates work.

“Is it causing a crash crashing of viral numbers? No, it’s not, but it seems like it’s holding it in check at least and at least slowing the growth rate,” he said.

To be clear, Juneau’s cases are going up right now. Juneau has been hit harder and has seen more cases and more hospitalizations in the last month than ever before in the pandemic.

But compared to the rest of the state on certain metrics, the capital city is doing OK.

“What we see in Juneau is we see about a 4% positivity rate, which is much, much better than say Anchorage is 9% positivity rate, and the positivity rate for testing in other boroughs,” King said.

Positivity rate is the percentage of tests that come back positive. The higher the rate, the more likely it is that you’ll encounter someone who is infected.

Juneau’s rate may be lower than Anchorage’s, but it’s still really high. And Jared Kosin — the chief executive of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association — says that just because some of Juneau’s numbers are lower, doesn’t mean they’re healthy.

“Those numbers are valid. And they’re good indicators of things, but they do not tell you the full story on the ground,” Kosin said.

Kosin says that even though the state’s data dashboard has Juneau’s hospital capacity in the green, Bartlett Regional Hospital is full. On Friday, there were no open beds. And 18 months into the pandemic, the impact on staff is significant.

“These people are exhausted, and the facility is stressed when you put that number of patients on ’em. It’s not something that’s just a simple manageable load,” he said.

State epidemiologists say the two major factors that decrease transmission rates are vaccinations and mitigation—things like masks and social distancing. A state study published in January showed that emergency orders, including a mask mandate, slowed the pandemic in Anchorage last summer. Due to a recent cyberattack, that study isn’t on the Department of Health and Social Services web page any longer, but it’s been saved in internet archives.

More than 80% of Juneau’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. On a call with statewide health providers and reporters this month, Juneau-based public health nurse Sarah Hargrave said there’s a reason the mask mandate is working in Juneau.

“People follow it. You just don’t see people out in the stores without masks. People are pretty good about social distancing in bars and restaurants that are at lower capacity based on city ordinances,” she said.

Jonathan King, the economist, says the Juneau numbers are an indicator of how things could be going a little bit better everywhere else in the state.

“There’s a lot of people in the state that are working very hard. But the lack of public health mitigation measures is hurting the state right now. And it’s costing lives,” he said. “And someday, some very smart person will sit down and actually calculate the number of additional hospitalizations, and deaths and cost that the state is incurring because it refuses to pursue even the most basic public health measures.”

He says that just doesn’t add up.

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