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'Low-risk doesn't mean no risk.' The problem with playing the odds with covid-19.
“If we have 1,000 people test positive," said Dr. Zink. "We would expect 260 of them to be children, 23 of them to be hospitalized, five of them to die."
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: Dissecting an important line from the latest pandemic news conference, the state’s latest record-breaking case count comes with an asterisk, a mind-boggling amount of waffling, a dispatch from monoclonal antibody treatment, the redistricting roadshow gets some dates, the reading list and the weekly watching.
Playing the odds
“Low-risk does not mean no risk,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink during a news conference today when referring to the younger low-risk Alaskans who are getting sick and dying in Alaska’s hospitals.
I wanted to highlight that quote because it gets to an important underlying issue with the state of the pandemic and the smug refusal of our state’s leaders to take meaningful action to curb the spread of the virus. One of the frequent lines we hear in response to the ongoing calls for mask mandates or to at least do something more than asking Alaskans to “strongly consider maybe thinking about consulting their doctor to see if the vaccine is right for them” is that neither masks nor vaccines will wipe out the virus. It’s a line that seems to be particularly favored by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and his cronies, who fall back to this I’m-smarter-than-you attitude of “Well actually, we can’t eradicate the virus so checkmate, LIBERALS." It seems to go along with this frankly bizarre narrative that people want to wear masks and want to limit large gatherings just for the sake of infringing on individual liberties and killing the economy, ignoring the reality that we’re all damned tired and would like nothing more to go back to normal… just not at the expense of the largely avoidable pain and suffering of our fellow Alaskans.
It’s a grim bit of fatalism and political opportunism that overlooks the simple fact that these measures have never been about the complete elimination of the virus—a possibility that long went out the window given the churn of mutations from the virus’ unchecked spread—but about reducing the risk that you’ll get the virus, reducing the risk that if you do that it will be severe and reducing the risk that if it is severe that you’ll die from it. That is something that is clearly borne out in the state’s experience as hospitals inundated by unvaccinated people.
The state’s own statistics lag on this front (more on that later), but the ballpark figure is that the unvaccinated make up about 85% to 90% of the new cases and hospitalizations. Yes, there are vaccinated people who are contracting the virus and landing in the hospital but they are almost universally in those high-risk groups (the average age of hospitalized people who are vaccinated is 66, according to Zink). And it’s not just that the unvaccinated account for the vast majority of covid-related hospitalizations but they’re also younger with an average age of 44 (which also means they end up clinging to life longer, requiring more resources before they recover or succumb to the virus).
"We see severe cases in every age group and the vast majority of patients we see in the emergency department often say 'I didn't think I would be the person who would be at risk,'" she said. "It's fantastic that many people are asymptomatic. It's great that many people recover quickly, but you are much safer to not require hospitalization and death if you are vaccinated for everyone 12 and above."
When talking about chances, she also gave a big picture look at what to expect with every 1,000 news cases of covid-19.
“If we have 1,000 people test positive, just based on general numbers we would expect 260 of them to be children, 23 of them to be hospitalized, five of them to die and every other day we would expect one child to be hospitalized," she said, adding that’s not to mention people who ride out the sickness at home. It’s a figure that far outweighs any risk we’ve seen from even the alleged side effects of the vaccine.
The figure makes Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s assertion on Wednesday that “practically all Alaskans” will end up with antibodies whether it be through vaccination or infection, as if it’s a point that would justify his refusal to do anything more than meekly suggest people think about getting vaccinated, look particularly morbid. Setting aside the ongoing debate over whether vaccines or infection is more effective (vaccination is more effective according to most serious studies, especially for people who were previously infected) this once again ignores the underlying statistics.
By the current case rates, that hands-off approach means more than five Alaskans will be expected die with each day’s new round of cases. Pencil out the governor’s “everyone gonna get it anyways” approach and the additional deaths to get to this natural herd immunity would be north of 1,500.
While the folks in charge of the policy have waffled on the vaccines (more on that below), Zink and her colleagues were unequivocal that vaccines and masking are are the best tools to reduce the risk that more serious medical intervention is required. Zink also stressed that the vaccines—which have been administered to about half of the world’s population at this point—are safe.
"We have the most safe and robust process in this country in the world for looking at vaccines," she said. "They're probably the safest thing we do in medicine, safer than most over-the-counter medications that we use."
Don’t play the odds. Get a vaccine.
That’s today’s total count of new cases of covid-19, shattering the record that was set just yesterday, but it comes with a caveat. Those are cases identified over a period that could stretch back as far as three weeks, state officials said today in a news conference where they stressed that the boom in numbers are in part driven by a massive backlog at pretty much every level of the state’s health care system. Testing facilities are backed up, hospitals are backed up and the state’s data team doesn’t have enough people to keep up with it all.
The new death count of 44 total new deaths also spans back potentially months with a “vast majority” coming from August. (Also, several people in their 20s are on that list.)
It’s an incredibly frustrating place for the state to be in. Not only does it paint an unclear and incomplete picture of the current situation, but it opens the door for pretty much anyone to read into it what they want. You can look at the seemingly hapless response and wonder about all the current cases that aren’t being reported in a timely fashion (and that’s not to mention all the cases that go unnoticed because of limitations in testing). Or, and more worryingly, some might look at the numbers and say “Yeesh, it’s not nearly as bad as the numbers look.”
The one takeaway that I can say for sure about it all is that Dunleavy’s claim that “We’re on top of it. We’ve always been on top of it.” continues to age poorly.
Frankly, my head’s still spinning from the governor’s news conference on Wednesday. There was his indignation that people would be critical of his handling of the pandemic, the winks and nods towards the anti-mask crowd, the aggressive backlash to the suggestion that the state should be more aggressive when it comes curbing the largely unchecked spread of the virus, the above mentioned touting of death numbers and herd immunity, and a heavy dose of doublespeak on the vaccines.
Each one of those could probably generate their own write-up (and certainly lay the groundwork for campaign messaging), but I just wanted to take some time to highlight the tireless work of columnist Dermot Cole in this piece that scrapes together all of Dunleavy’s vaccine waffling: Dunleavy vacillates on vaccinations as deaths, hospitalizations mount. It’s remarkable when you see it all in one place.
“We encourage folks to work at actually getting a vaccination,” he said.
“We’re going to continue to ask the people of Alaska to seriously consider getting a vaccination that’s readily available,” he said.
“We still need individual Alaskans to give some serious thought about getting a vaccine.”
“Even within the scientific and health care fields, you’ve got folks with different opinions on vaccinations, on therapies, etc.”
“There are families in which some folks want to get vaccinated, some don’t.”
Yes, they’re a thing. Yes, they work as long as you get them very early in the course of your infection (pending availability). The longer you wait to have any sort of intervention on covid-19, the worse it can be. Here’s a great thread breaking down the experience:
I’ve been meaning to dig into the latest round of maps, but the good news is that you’ll have several (somewhat limited) opportunities to check them out yourselves! Here’s the currently set roadshow dates from the Alaska Redistricting Board:
September 27, 2021: Juneau Public Hearing: 4:30pm-6:30pm: Centennial Hall http://notice.alaska.gov/203858
September 28, 2021: Haines Public Hearing: 2:30pm-4:00pm: Haines Assembly Chambers http://notice.alaska.gov/203859
September 29, 2021: Sitka Public Hearing: 3:30pm-5:30pm: Sitka Westmark Hotel http://notice.alaska.gov/203872
September 30, 2021: Valdez Public Hearing: 4:30pm-6:30pm: Valdez Convention and Civic Center http://notice.alaska.gov/203873
October 4, 2021: Anchorage Public Hearing: 4:30pm-6:30pm: Anchorage LIO http://notice.alaska.gov/203893
The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ new program aimed at bridging the gap between Indigenous knowledge and Western science is in its second year and just sounds really cool. From Alaska Public Media: Alaska Native graduate program aims to elevate Indigenous knowledge in fisheries research
Beloved Alaska Twitter data nerd Will Muldoon is jumping into the race for Juneau’s school board with a write-in campaign. From KTOO: Will Muldoon jumps in the school board race two weeks before Juneau’s election
Rep. David Eastman is out comparing Biden to Hitler complete with a link to a Holocaust-denial website because, sure, why not. From the ADN: Alaska legislator compares Biden to Hitler, shares link to Holocaust-denial website
After everything in the pandemic, it turns out folks aren’t thrilled to return to high-stress and low-wage retail and restaurant jobs where you’ll frequently be running into belligerent anti-maskers? Turns out there’s greener pastures. From The Washington Post: Greener pastures: Marijuana jobs are becoming a refuge for retail and restaurant workers
The sham of an election audit is over, confirming that Biden did win Maricopa County. Just don’t expect it to be the end of the bad-faith arguments from the GOP when it comes to elections. It was never about restoring faith, but drumming up more ammunition for anti-democratic election “reforms.” From the Washington Post: The Arizona ‘audit’ just destroyed a big GOP lie — in more ways than one
I’m tempted to put some covid-related video here but instead let’s focus on FOOTBALL. The NFL is back (and so is fantasy football) and it’s been pretty great so far (well aside from everything that is continually problematic about it). One of my favorite storylines so far is the redemption tour of Panthers Quarterback Sam Darnold, who has helped lead the team (with a heaping dose of help from a revitalized defense) to a 3-0 record to start the season. The last time the Panthers kicked off a season like that, they reached the Super Bowl… hopefully it doesn’t lead to the spectacular collapse last time around, which is covered in this great series from Secret Base:
Have a nice weekend, y’all.
Take care, be kind and do something fun.