Editorial: The pandemic is not yet behind us

Objects may be closer than they appear — the pandemic is not behind us

At a press conference April 6 in Kenai, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the COVID-19 pandemic “is in the rearview mirror.” Dunleavy is wrong.

For Alaska, the United States and the world, the pandemic is far from over. It’s as if we have run the Boston Marathon and are now climbing Heartbreak Hill. We hope this will be the last hill, but we still have to finish 5 more miles of the race.

From April 6 through April 18, 19 Alaskans were reported to have died with COVID-19, 44 more have been hospitalized and 2,184 have tested positive. On the southern Kenai Peninsula, 21 people have tested positive. Alaska remains in a high-alert level of 21.82 cases per 100,000 people. The peninsula is at 19.98 cases and the southern peninsula is at 10.7 cases — all in the red.

Some people act like we’re done with the pandemic. At a March 29 town hall meeting held at Captain’s Coffee by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, most of the people there partied like it was 2019. As people came in, they sat together, chatting away. Social distancing? Mask wearing? Hand-washing? Covering coughs? Little of that was in sight.

Last Saturday for the 27th annual Homer Winter King Tournament, 1,562 anglers went out on the water to fish. Fishing outdoors in an open boat with people in your social bubble or fully vaccinated is fairly safe, but when you then got about 400 people milling about outside at the Deep Water dock for the awards ceremony, sometimes standing shoulder to shoulder, eh, not so much. The line to the beer tent compressed social distancing from the recommended 6 feet to about 6 inches. Hardly anyone wore masks. Yes, many were probably fully vaccinated, but that’s not protecting children.

(And for the record, as is our company policy, when I covered those events, I wore a face mask. I’m also fully vaccinated, so I don’t need to worry about getting sick if I get infected. My worry is that if I get infected I could spread the virus to those not yet vaccinated.)

A lot of Alaskans agree with Dunleavy and want the pandemic to be over. We’re getting fully vaccinated, with 47.7% of eligible Alaskans having received one dose and 40% fully vaccinated, so it must be done, right?

Some people don’t trust the vaccines proven to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19. Curiously, many of the people resistant to vaccines also are against simple public health measures like wearing face masks indoors or where social distancing isn’t possible. Some people have turned public health into a political issue, elevating their individual rights above community health.

Aside from mass vaccination, and barring some miracle like a weak version of the coronavirus emerging and becoming dominant, we have only two ways out of the pandemic: let it run its course so that everyone gains some immunity or develop a drug that stops the virus in its track. Hoping you get immune from a bout of COVID-19 might seem acceptable until you consider that at worst you can die. Some survivors have suffered lingering effects like long COVID-19, where you’re so weak you can barely walk to the bathroom. We’ve developed good treatment for COVID-19, treatment that saved politicians from Dunleavy himself to Rep. Don Young, but it’s not a magic bullet.

The end of the pandemic is not a faith-based event where if you believe it’s over, it’s over. The pandemic is like gravity. If you jump out of a balloon high above the ground, you will hit the earth hard. We need the balloon to get closer to the earth — much closer.

How will we know when the pandemic is over? Writer Alexis C. Madrigal answers this question in a Feb. 23 article in Atlantic Magazine, “A Simple Rule of Thumb for Knowing When the Pandemic is Over.” He suggests that the pandemic will be over when it reaches the rate of seasonal flu, a viral event with illness and death in numbers we have come to accept. Some of the criteria are:

• When daily deaths nationally are 100 or fewer nationally;

• When diagnosed positive COVID-19 tests are 0.5 per 100,000 or less, about fewer than 2,000 cases a day nationally, and

• When the test positivity rate is less than 1%.

That’s the finish line for the pandemic. If we keep up practices like wearing face masks and social distancing, and work to get everyone possible vaccinated, we will end this long haul. Anything less drags out the pandemic, and that will mean sickness, death and more economic disaster.

Hang in there and finish the race.

– Michael Armstrong, editor