Four months into the pandemic that should remind self-important, modern humans that Mother Nature still rules the planet, with the battle against SARS-CoV-2 having left many masked up and living in a state of fear, maybe it’s time to take stock on how lucky we are to live in Alaska.
Viruses, it is worth noting, are like all other organisms in one simple respect: They thrive in good habitat and struggle in bad habitat.
In this, they are like moose. Willow thickets will support a lot more moose than a paved-over parking lot.
Humans are in the case of SARS-CoV-2 the willows. The virus thrives by jumping from one to the other. The closer together available host organism the faster the virus grows and spreads.
This is what social distancing and isolation are all about. They are simple means of making it harder for the virus to jump from you to me or me to you. And Alaska is blessed in this regard.
It an easy state in which to avoid other humans. This might largely explain why the state’s COVID-19 death rate is the second lowest in the nation.
Alaska is now seeing a slight increase in infections as some snowbirds arrive back in the state for the summer, but compared to the states of the U.S. Northeast the increase is tiny because we have a lot of wide open space on our side.
Few of us
Even where humans are at their densest in the 49th state, they’re not very dense. New York City packs in more than 27,000 people per square mile. Anchorage, the state’s largest city, appears to have a general population density somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 people per square mile.
Many sources on the internet will tell you the city is home to 175 people per square mile or less, but they calculate the population against the size of the entire Municipality of Anchorage which includes within its boundaries the undeveloped, half-million-acre Chugach State Park, a chunk of the Chugach National Forest and other wild lands.
According to the Statistical Atlas, which neatly charts data from the U.S. Census, Anchorage neighborhood densities range from almost 7,500 people per square mile in Fairview to 222 people per square mile in Glen Alps.
The average is somewhere between those extremes, but no matter how you measure, the density is low compared to the Big Apple. Even Fairview, the densest neighborhood is only about a quarter as dense as the New York average, and in New York as in Anchorage, the overall figure is an average.
Brooklyn, for instance, is home to 36,782 people per square mile, according to the World Population Review. There are about five times as many people packed into Brooklyn as there are in Fairview.
Sardines in a can
For a SARS-CoV-2 virus, Brooklyn is a target-rich environment, and the COVID-19 data from there reflects the natural difficulty in social distancing.
“…Canarsie-Flatlands in Brooklyn, home to four New York City Housing Authority developments, has the highest death rate in the city by population,” Market Watch reported in mid-May. “The worst-hit ZIP Code in the neighborhood has recorded 612 deaths per 100,000 residents—more than triple the city average and the highest rate in the city.”
By now most everyone in the world has heard about the death rate in Sweden, a country which has been targeted for taking a different approach to the SARS-CoV-2 battle than any other country. Sweden has tried to walk a middle road between busting its economy with a total lockdown and sacrificing lives needlessly by totally ignoring the threat posed by the pandemic.
The U.S. media line, as duly reported by the Washington Post earlier this month, has gone like this:
“The official Swedish death toll rose to 4,562 on Thursday, a toll of 45 per 100,000 residents, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The United States has seen roughly 33 deaths per 100,000 residents. Britain, Italy, Spain and Belgium are worse off than Sweden, according to the data. But many Swedes say the best comparison is with their immediate neighbors in Scandinavia, which have been relatively spared, even though they have similar population density, political systems and cultures.”
Sweden’s unique approach has not played out the way the Swede’s would have liked, but to compare the small, Scandanavian country to the U.S. where the death rate has been pushed down by little-peopled states like Alaska, Hawaii, Montana (1.7/100,000), Wyoming (3.1/100,000), Idaho (4.8/100,000) and others badly distorts the situation.
The death rate in Massachusetts is 108 per 100,000 – more than twice that of Sweden. The death rate in Connecticut is slightly higher at 116 per 100,000.
No other states are in triple digits. Seventeen have deaths rates in the single digits and California is close to that with a death rate of 12 per 100,000.
One thing most of those states have in common is relatively dispersed populations versus people living stacked together on top of each other. Fresh air – and the more of it the better – has been known as a protectant against the spread of the airborne contagious disease since the Spanish flu pandemic more than a century ago.
Alaska is blessed with a lot of fresh air. Be thankful for that, but don’t stop there.
Winning the war
There are more reasons to be thankful:
- Modern medicine has rapidly evolved and adapted to treat people who become seriously sick from SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 was killing about 20 percent of the people who got seriously ill at the start of the pandemic. That number is now down to 10 percent, according to the Worldometer COVID-19 tracker. In other words, even if you become violently ill from COVID-19 – and many suffer only mild or no symptoms – there is a 90 percent chance you will pull through. Those are better odds than for many cancers. Nearly 3.8 million people around the globe are now COVID-19 survivors. Approximately 419,000 have died, sadly more than a quarter of them in the U.S. with more 55 percent of those deaths in the Northeast states.
- There are indications SARS-CoV-2 might be less contagious than first thought. A tracking study conducted in the state of Washington suggested you are unlikely to catch the disease simply due to a passing contact with someone who has it. When a team of scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control carefully backtracked nine people known to have had COVID-19, they found only two people who got the disease from “close contacts.” Both were spouses. “Generally,” their report added, “close contacts were defined as persons having frequent or more than brief contact (greater than 1 – 2 minutes within 6 ft) with a travel-associated case patient during the travel-associated case patient’s presumed infectious period. Most sites also considered persons sharing the same airspace as the travel-associated case patient for more than ten minutes to be close contacts.” The study found significant and real threats to other household members, but of “78 community contacts for whom information was sufficiently detailed to classify at least one specific type of exposure…the secondary attack rate…was zero.”
- Lastly, there is evidence that natural sunlight is highly effective at defusing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, although researchers reporting in The Journal of Infectious Diseases did caution that “while significant levels of viral inactivation were observed within minutes at all simulated sunlight levels investigated, it should be noted that the duration of time each day that outdoor UVB levels exceed those used in the present study is dependent not only on the time of year, but also on the local weather conditions, especially cloud cover. Thus, it is possible that significant day-to-day variability may exist in the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces in outdoor environments.” The study did, however, indicate those differences would likely be a matter of minutes not days.
Given that most Alaskans, weary after the state’s long winter, like to spend as much time outdoors in the summer as possible, this is nothing but good news. Add in the long-known protective effects of fresh air, and it’s even better news.
This is not meant to suggest anyone host a pool party where you all slobber over each other. If you try hard enough, you can catch COVID-19 in Alaska. Twenty-two people are in the hospital with it now, according to the state COVID tracker.
Sensible caution remains the order of the day. Alaskans need to be as panedmic aware as they are bear aware.
But there is at this point no real reason to let SARS-CoV-2 wreck your summer. Save the worry for fall. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington is predicting another uptick in COVID-19 cases then.
It now forecasts a national, daily death rate that drops under 500 by July 5, but then begins a slow but steady rise in early September that grows to more than 1,000 by October 1. The forecast is, however, within a broad range which stretches from under 100 deaths by that October date to nearly 4,400.
live in alaska
it’s not that hard to catch