In Alaska and most of the United States there is debate about when and how much to “open up” communities affected by COVID-19. Covid infections are surging in most states that have opened up partially and/or completely. Alaska infections also are increasing dramatically since the economy was opened and travel restrictions were eased. Our total number of active cases has quadrupled between July 7 and July 30. 23 people have died.
Alaska’s current approach is obviously not working.
It’s time for Alaska to take a different approach to protect our people and economy. Instead of going back to lockdowns, as in California, Alaska’s geography makes it especially amenable to effective quarantine and the elimination of COVID-19 community spread. Stop it at the borders. Until we can get it under control again, stop it between towns.
The state of Western Australia provides a template for such a quarantine. Western Australia (71% larger than Alaska), which has 2.6 million residents compared to Alaska's 745,000, never closed its schools, even at the height of concern over coronavirus. It mandated a “hard” border: A quarantine for all incoming travelers for 14 days with testing and strict enforcement. It briefly divided the state into 14 zones, with travel restricted between zones to essential/permitted travel only, but it eliminated the zones when there was no intrastate spread of the virus. It recently celebrated 100-plus days of no community spread, the only new cases in the state are travelers in quarantine. As a result, schools are open, people move and work freely in the economy, masks are not mandated, the need for testing is less and people are now encouraged to be tourists in their own state.
Western Australia currently has only six active cases— all travelers tested in the 14-day quarantine. Alaska has 2,591 active cases (2,069 resident and 522 nonresident cases).
Anchorage is a hotspot with 1,230 cases, and with 62 other communities infected we need to protect ourselves from the spread of this invisible menace within our state. We don’t want that brought here.
In the past few days, Alaska has had more COVID-19 deaths and several more hospitalizations with a total of 40 in hospitals statewide, with at least three in ICU on ventilators.
Western Australia has had zero hospitalizations since June 5.
This is in marked contrast to the surging cases on the east side of Australia in the state of Victoria, which, due to lax policy (not securing those quarantined well enough) now have lockdowns again and a recent mask mandate for their largest city.
Bethel is an Alaskan example of quarantine. Bethel is now offering free hotel accommodation, meals, transportation and testing of arriving travelers who will quarantine in their hotel rooms during their layover in Bethel in an effort to protect its citizens from the virus. Bethel is funding this from CARES Act funds. In 1918 Shishmaref was proactive in protecting its citizens from the deadly Spanish Flu, and communities north, by a guarded blockade at its entry point and only allowed people to come within hailing distance.
Western Australia is a very successful model that Alaska could customize to stop our escalating numbers. Currently there’s no travel testing or quarantine mandate for people moving between communities in Alaska, there is only a Swiss cheese-like policy for arriving interstate travelers and our numbers are increasing dramatically.
If Alaska would mandate a strict 14-day travel quarantine on all travelers, interstate and intrastate, then Ketchikan could use federal funds to hire and properly train security guards and implement the proper cleaning protocols for hotel quarantine for those where home quarantine isn’t available or logical.
Ketchikan is seeing a steady increase in cases, with a person now hospitalized, and we’re hearing several stories of travelers who are supposed to be quarantining but are not and travelers returning with the virus from within the state.
People want to go back to a normal life and are taking more risks, not everyone will wear a mask or maintain social distance. COVID-19 is a debilitating, highly contagious virus. Since it spreads like wildfire, an outbreak in our key essential services such as our medical community, police and fire departments would be disastrous. There have been four major outbreaks in seafood plants in Alaska. An outbreak in a Ketchikan seafood plant could overwhelm our small hospital capacity. If we could protect ourselves at the entry points to keep the virus out, then we could return to normal.
Since the incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days, a 14-day travel quarantine with appropriate testing creates a secure safety net to keep the virus out of our communities and state.
We need to take swift, decisive action and protect ourselves now before it’s too late.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan is now greatly respected by all on both sides of the aisle, and the independently spirited Western Australians are free to go to school, work, and play like normal, knowing they are relatively safe due to the secure safety net at the border.
Please reference Mark McGowan’s Facebook page for details of his success. He is providing strong, decisive leadership to the grateful people of Western Australia. We can, too.
Bev Davies is a Ketchikan resident for 47 years and real estate agent since 1984. Dr. Diane Liljegren is a board certified family medicine physician, licensed in Alaska since January 1992, and in practice in Ketchikan from January 1992 to July 1, 2020.