The sun was shining warmly on Alaska’s largest city Saturday, but in the shade it was still cold for March along the state’s gulf coast.
Far to the north, a Norwegian musher was leading an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race slowed slightly by snow and cold as it headed toward the Bering Sea coast where villagers, like Americans everywhere, worried about the spread of the deadly coronavirus Covid-19.
Similarly worried urban Alaskans were cleaning out grocery shelves in stores across the sprawling Anchorage Metro Area driven by concerns they might need to self-isolate or self-quarantine.
Fears had shifted from the long term threat of global warming to the more immediate fear of an invisible virus posing an unusually deadly threat, especially to those old and male. Eighty percent of the dead to date are over 60 and men are almost twice as likely to die as women.
Many had probably already forgotten the balmy November and that early December day when the temperature hit a record 51 degrees. The warmth then helped 2019 draw to a close as the warmest year in Alaska’s record weather history.
The new year arrived to wipe all of that away at least temporarily. Unusually frigid temperatures brought a reminder of what the north used to be like.
Temperatures to date are tracking 9.3 degrees below normal, according to the NWS. The Saturday night low of 3 degrees was 16 degrees below the normal minimum.
As the temperatures fell in winter, Alaskans retreated to the warmth of their homes and motor vehicles as they struggled through the long nights of darkness that are for many more challenging than the cold.
Urban Alaskans, like most residents of the developed world, now live lives largely disconnected from nature. They move from comfortable houses to comfortable shops and offices with the natural world little more than background scenery unless it interferes with the daily commute.
As in the rest of the country, COVID-19 arrived for them as a reminder of how nature still rules the planet.
It wants us to die as much as it wants us be born because that is how the natural world works. That we come to largely forget this on a daily basis only underlines how far from nature we have evolved.
It is an amazing luxury.
A thousand years ago, no human worried about what he or she was doing to the environment in the moment, let alone how actions of the present might might influence the next year or, heaven forbid, the next century.
People worried not about the future but about tomorrow, as many are doing now. It’s amazing how an invisible pathogen can shift thinking so quickly.
With the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus floating around unseen in the air, melting permafrost doesn’t seem quite the danger it did back in the fall. Suddenly people are worrying a lot about the here and now.
Can anyone reading this remember when last “death rates” were a part of normal conversation? And it is interesting to listen to the discussion between those who debate whether the COVID-19 death rate is horrific or overblown because they are both somewhat right.
It sort of depends on how one looks at the numbers. The World Health Organization (WHO) now estimates 3 to 4 percent of those who suffer the symptoms of COVID-19 will die.
In any group of 100 people that would mean three or four dead. That is not a big number.
On a broader population scale, however, the number of bodies quickly increases. If COVID-19 were to reach flu-like infection rates in the U.S. and the death rate were to remain at 3 to 4 percent, the country could be looking at more than 1.5 million dead.
That’s a scary number. That’s more three times as many deaths than the U.S. suffered in World War II, and more than twice the approximately 647,000 Americans who die every year from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Even the idea of COVID-19 reaching the latter level is frightening.
“One person dies every 37 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease,” according to the CDC. Despite this risk, however, most Americans fail to take even the minimal steps to protect themselves from this killer.
Given the numbers, it would appear likely that most of the people rushing to the stores to stock up on supplies for the possible coming of COVID-19 fail to take the minimum steps to protect themselves from the more probable arrival of cardiovascular disease.
Perspective, it would seem, is everything on several levels,
Many, if not most, of the people neglecting exercise, letting their weight spin out of control or smoking appear to view cardiovascular problems as threats far off in the future.
There are the people who now also find themselves most threatened by COVID-19. Cardiovascular diseases quadruples your risk of dying from COVID-19, according to a JAMA Network analysis of 72,314 cases in China, and diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension and cancer more than double the risk of COVID-19 deaths.
The World Health Organization has tried to tamp down panic.
Fear, however, seems to be winning at the moment. Many see it as the killer at the door now.
Alaska is in a unique position because it has been here before. The Alaska Territory, and especially its northern district, was among the places to suffer the worst in the global, Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19.
“The proportion of people who died from influenza among those diagnosed was greater than 2.5 percent, which is at least 25 times greater than other modern influenza pandemics ( less than 0.1 percent),” according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.
Flu deaths elsewhere, however, varied greatly from a fraction of a percent in the Interior where only three of 9,585 residents were reported to have died to 3 percent along the Gulf Coast to 3.5 percent in Southeast.
Some communities appeared to escape the pandemic because they were isolated or because they self-quarantined, according to an exhaustive BBC story in 2018, but other places that escaped are hard to explain.
“Some communities in 1918 also appear to have escaped the virus against all logic. The 737 people living in the town of Fletcher, Vermont, defied advice to avoid contact with the outside world, holding a dance and attending a county fair in a neighboring town,” the BBC’s Richard Gray wrote “.The town even hosted a wedding for a soldier from a military camp in Massachusetts that saw 28 percent of its population hit by influenza and suffered 757 deaths in the same month as the wedding. Despite 120 guests attending the wedding, the residents of Fletcher appeared to have dodged a bullet.
“And this good fortune is perhaps the greatest lesson that the (so-called) escape communities of 1918 have to offer modern health officials. Many communities that implemented rigid protection and quarantine measures were still hit by the pandemic.
“Survival, it seems, can sometimes come down to blind luck.”
Unfortunately, the problem with luck is that you can’t count on it. All that is known to help for sure this time around is good hygiene and avoiding contact with infected people.
The CDC offers simple advice on hygiene. The avoidance issue is more complicated. People coughing and sneezing are easy to spot, but a preliminary study out Friday estimated that up to about half of the people infected with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic, meaning they lack obvious signs of being ill.
“This ratio is slightly smaller than that of influenza, which was estimated
at 56–80 percent,” scientists reported. The high percentage of flu sufferers who get sick without feeling or looking that sick help explain why that disease can spread to so many people every year.
Only time will tell how deadly COVID-19 in a historical context, and more importantly whether it follows the pattern of the flu virus and weakens as the weather warms. The flu usually starts to fade along about this time every year.
“Here are the most popular theories about why the flu strikes in winter,” Harvard University reports:
- “During the winter, people spend more time indoors with the windows sealed, so they are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and thus contract the virus.
- “Days are shorter during the winter, and lack of sunlight leads to low levels of vitamin D and melatonin, both of which require sunlight for their generation. This compromises our immune systems, which in turn decreases ability to fight the virus.
- “The influenza virus may survive better in colder, drier climates, and therefore be able to infect more people.”
The flu virus has been shown to survive best in those cold, dry climates, but Harvard notes that in “warmer climates, oddly enough, flu infection rates are correlated most closely with high humidity and lots of rain. Unfortunately, not much research has been done to explain these contradictory results, so it’s unclear why the flu behaves so differently in disparate environments.”
And even less is known about COVID-19.
Be very afraid. Or not. The data can be read in many ways.
(This is an updated version of an earlier commentary.)