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Alaska’s top doctors emphasize importance of COVID mitigation as Unalaska votes to keep mask mandate

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Berett Wilber
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KUCB
Seven people spoke out against Unalaska’s mask mandate during Tuesday's meeting, citing personal choice and lack of evidence that masking works. They asked councilors to seriously consider loosening local public health restrictions.

The Unalaska City Council voted Tuesday to keep a community-wide mask mandate in place, as the state continues to lead the country in average new daily COVID-19 cases per capita.

“Statewide, what's happening is we're in the middle of the largest surge that we have experienced so far in the COVID pandemic,” said state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin during Tuesday night’s meeting.

Alaska’s case rate is five times higher than the national average, McLaughlin said, and likely hasn’t reached the peak yet.

“We don't know for sure if and when that's going to happen — if it's going to happen in the next week or two — that's just an unknown at this point,” he said. “When we look at what's happening nationally, right now, cases are decreasing in 37 jurisdictions across the country, and they're increasing in four jurisdictions. One of those jurisdictions, of course, is Alaska.”

McLaughlin said while 55% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, only about 47% of Alaskans are — meaning we’re in the lowest third of the country. According to state data, 64.7% of the Aleutians West Census Area is fully vaccinated.

“So we really need to catch up to the rest of the nation and do whatever we can to get people who are currently eligible to get vaccinated, fully vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said.

But even if Alaskans get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine today, he said it’s still about six weeks before they’d be considered fully vaccinated. So, McLaughlin said, it’s still important to keep up other mitigation practices like masking and social distancing.

“We know those nonpharmaceutical interventions work. It worked for us in 2020, and they will work again with this delta variant,” he said.

Seven people spoke out against Unalaska’s mask mandate during the meeting, citing personal choice and lack of evidence that masking works. They asked councilors to seriously consider loosening local public health restrictions.

Two of the speakers are running for City Council seats in Unalaska’s upcoming municipal election. One of them, Monica Henning, touted the benefits of controversial medical treatments, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. The Food and Drug Administration warns against the use of both medicines to treat COVID-19.

“You can have a tool that's imperfect, like masking, that can make a really big difference on transmission,” Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “When they're consistently used, we still see some transmission — it's not perfect — but it is a really useful tool in decreasing it.”

Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson is a firm proponent of masking and voted with the rest of the council to keep the local mask mandate in place.

“It's my belief that personal choice ends when others die because of your choice,” he said.

Council members will reevaluate the requirement at their meeting on Oct. 12.

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