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July 20
Play Every Day’s new message reveals kids don't need magic to make large amounts of sugar disappear: They can do it with just one drink

​JULY 20, 2020  You know how kids make a large amount of sugar disappear, in just a few seconds? 

They drink it. 

Play Every Day has been focusing its recent messages on keeping families healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that will continue. The campaign, however, is discussing other ways to help children grow up healthy. One way is to cut back on serving sugary drinks that can lead to cavities, unhealthy weight gain, type 2 diabetes and other health concerns.

“Choosing healthy drinks and being active can help prevent the diseases that increase the chances of severe illness from COVID-19,” said Karol Fink, registered dietitian and manager of Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program that runs Play Every Day. “It’s never too late to start serving kids healthier options, like water or milk.”

No magic necessary: Kids can make sugar disappear by drinking it

PlayEveryDay_MagicShowX2_Tada.pngPlay Every Day’s newest message uses kids’ love of magic tricks to show how much sugar is hiding in drinks. The 30-second video opens with a little boy dressed in a magician’s costume. He’s standing in front of 6 teaspoons of sugar. He tells his dad: “I can make all this sugar disappear.” His dad smiles and says: “Show me.” The boy covers the teaspoons with his magician’s hat and then pulls the hat away, showing that the large amount of sugar is now in an 8-ounce glass of a sweetened powdered drink. The boy quickly drinks the orange-flavored beverage, making all that added sugar disappear in just a few gulps.

The message states that these drinks are often labeled in ways to make them seem healthy. The front of the label might say “100% Vitamin C,” or show a picture of a fruit. That drink, however, may not be made with any fruit and can contain more sugar than your child should have in one day. 

The small glass of a powdered drink pictured in this new message can have about 6 teaspoons of added sugar. A small cranberry raspberry-flavored drink, like the one featured in last year’s Play Every Day video, can have 8 teaspoons of added sugar. That’s the same amount of sugar found in eight chocolate mini doughnuts. 

Sugary drinks remain the leading source of added sugars, for kids and adults

Sugary drinks are the most common source of added sugars each day, for kids and for adults. That includes powdered and fruit-flavored drinks; sports, energy and vitamins drinks; soda; and sweetened coffees and teas. Another common sugar-added drink for little kids is chocolate and flavored milk. 

Last year, four leading health organizations worked together to share a new report called “Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids.” These groups agree: Sugary drinks of all kinds are not recommended for children ages 5 and younger. Limiting added sugar each day is good for the health of older children and adults, too. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the amount of sugar older children and adults eat and drink to less than 10 percent of their daily calories. Even small fruit drinks can be packed with that much sugar, even more.

Play Every Day’s new magic-focused message shows a dad reading the front and back of the drink’s label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires the Nutrition Facts labels to clearly list the added sugar on a special line under “Total Carbohydrate.” The powdered drink featured in Play Every Day’s message, for example, has 22 grams of added sugar in an 8-ounce glass. For this example, 22 grams of sugar is about 6 teaspoons — the amount the little boy displays in the first scene of the video.

Play Every Day continues to update its messages​ to encourage families to serve healthier drinks to children from the very beginning: 

  • Birth to 1 year — Choose breast milk or iron-fortified formula only.
  • 1 – 2 years old — Serve water and pasteurized whole white milk.
  • 2 – 6 years old — Serve water and pasteurized fat-free (skim or nonfat) or low-fat (1%) white milk.

The campaign’s new message ends with a flip of the magician’s cape, revealing a full glass of water.

“There’s no illusion about this healthy drink,” the message says. “It’s just water, and it’s what kids need.”

200605 Play Every Day Magic Show-6557 web.jpg



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July 15
Physical activity during the pandemic:  What will recess and activity in schools look like this fall? 

​JULY 15, 2020 — School districts are working on plans to reopen schools this fall for Alaska’s 130,000 students and thousands of staff after closing in March for the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on the level of virus spreading in the community, those plans include in-school instruction with physical distancing, distance learning from home, or often a hybrid model combining the two. 

As schools use Alaska’s Smart Start 2020 Framework to create these new models for learning, finding different ways to support students’ and staff’s physical, mental, and social-emotional health is more important than ever. Participating in physical activities can improve all of these types of health.

DSC_3057.jpg“Physical activity and education are essential for the health and well-being of Alaska students,” said Rochelle Lindley, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “However, physical activity and education may look different during a pandemic. Through the Alaska Smart Start 2020 guidance, school districts will be responsible for developing plans for physical education and activity in low-, medium-, and high-risk environments.”

Planning the 2020-21 school year during a pandemic is a significant challenge for these school districts. Schools are figuring out how to be a place where teachers and staff feel supported as they go back to work, and where parents feel secure sending their kids into a group setting. Many questions need answers, and one of those questions is how to offer students physical activity, physical education (PE) class and recess in different scenarios that could vary during the year, depending on the spread of virus in the community served by the district.  

How do teachers provide time for activity with shorter school days that are proposed in some Alaska school districts? If kids are in school, what physical activities are easier — or harder — to offer when it’s so important to avoid close contact with others? How will the Healthy Futures program provide its free physical activity challenge in more than 100 elementary schools across the state? And if we enter a high-risk period, what will school-supported physical activity look like when kids are learning only from home? Many of these questions don’t have complete answers yet. Play Every Day will be exploring them in more depth as we approach and start the new school year. 

Active students learn better

These questions are important to answer because physically active students can focus more, think more clearly, react to stress more calmly, and perform and behave better in class. All of these positive outcomes of activity are shared in a review of research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national recommendation for school-age children has been at least 60 minutes of daily activity for the best health. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans emphasize that regular activity has benefits beyond physical health. It also can decrease the risk of depression, reduce anxiety and improve sleep. Even if time at school is limited, using some of it for physical activity could help the rest of the seated instructional time be more efficient.  

“Will we get to go back to recess?”

One of the common questions parents are asking about school is whether recess will be on or off in the fall. With the proposed shortened schedule, there won’t be enough time for all the usual subjects and activities. Not only is recess a kid-favorite, it helps students practice social skills such as following rules, cooperating, problem-solving, negotiating and communicating. Recess can give kids and staff a chance to spend time outside and have in-person social connections — something many have been missing during recent months — while maintaining appropriate physical distance. Each district will make its own decision in the weeks and months to come. Dr. Mark Stock, Deputy Superintendent at the Anchorage School District, shared his support for including recess and outdoor time in school schedules this fall.   

“ASD recognizes the importance of recess and the opportunities it provides to get fresh air and exercise every day,” Stock said. “It is more important than ever in these days of ‘hunker down’ and social distancing brought upon us due to the pandemic."

“While plans and schedules are still being finalized, daily recess and exercise outdoors will remain an important part of the school day, even with a shortened schedule. In fact, being outdoors will be encouraged for all classrooms even beyond recess. We encourage teachers to provide opportunities to teach outside in the fresh air as a great alternative to the four walls of the classroom.”

Tools to help schools plan during the pandemic

The CDC provides guidance in a series of Considerations for Schools documents to support schools during the pandemic. This includes the K-12 Schools Readiness and Planning Tool, a practical way to monitor and maintain necessary actions to promote healthy behaviors, environments and procedures that reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.   

SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators) recently released the 2020-2021 School Reentry Considerations: K-12 Physical Education, Health Education, and Physical Activity with specific recommendations for recess, including:

  • Have students and staff wash or sanitize hands before and after recess. Use CDC downloadable resources on handwashing as visual cues and reminders. 
  • Identify multiple areas where recess can be held for different cohorts of students to minimize crowding. Whenever possible, use outdoor spaces for recess. 
  • Develop a plan for moving students from the classroom to the designated recess areas. Give students guidance on how to safely move between areas while still maintaining physical distance from others. Plan time to practice these transitions with students.
  • Limit or eliminate the use of playground equipment or play structures. If playground equipment is used, it requires normal, routine cleaning. Targeted disinfection may be appropriate for high-touch surfaces like railings. Consult CDC guidance on playground and recess play equipment sanitation procedures.
  • Use painted play spaces or create play areas with stencils or cones to designate zones to help students identify how to safely follow physical distancing guidelines and to provide sufficient opportunities for free choice of activities during recess.

Local groups in Alaska are exploring more ways to support physical activity in schools this fall. SHAPE Alaska is looking at how to develop trainings to support physical education teachers across the state, and the Alaska School Activities Association recently released guidance about sports-related practices and events. The association’s executive director talked about this guidance on a statewide webinar earlier this week

The state Departments of Education and Early Development and Health and Social Services, along with other partners, will start a webinar series to address questions about reopening schools.  Weekly sessions for superintendents, principals and school health leaders will begin July 21. To learn more and register, visit https://echo.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAvduqorTgqGdIldKANttMHl-el85qrH_s0. The Alaska Smart Start Summer Virtual Summit 2020 will begin in August for teachers, parents, district staff, tribal leaders, community members and more. To learn more and register, visit aklearns.org/smartwebinar/.

The Play Every Day campaign will continue to share information about physical activity, recess and physical education during the pandemic as more details become available. Please contact playeveryday@alaska.gov to share how your school district is working to support the health and activity of Alaska students.    

Additional resources 

For additional information, please go to:  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 

Alaska Department of Education and Early Development 

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services 


July 01
Families can make playground visits safer during the pandemic

​JULY 1, 2020 — After months of closing or being too snow-covered to use, playgrounds at schools and public parks reopened in most communities for the summer. Families are definitely returning to play. 

“During this pandemic, our outdoor spaces have become more valuable than ever,” said Josh Durand, director of Anchorage Parks and Recreation. “These are opportunities to have some reprieve. Outdoor experiences can wash away some of the stress in life. This is good for children and parents alike.”

Even though the yellow caution tape came down from playgrounds in Anchorage and elsewhere, it’s still important for families to be careful when bringing their children to swing, slide or climb. Gathering close to others can increase the chances of spreading COVID-19 from person to person. That includes kids playing and yelling near each other, as well as parents from different households hanging out together as they watch.

“Parents standing next to each other chitchatting are also at risk,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer.

Parks departments across Alaska are putting in extra time to clean playgrounds. Even so, you can help set expectations for your family to prevent the spread of illness. Show up with your own hand sanitizer and tell your kids that they’ll be using it before and after playing. Bring face coverings for everyone, and put them on before coming within 6 feet of others. That includes you, too, Mom and Dad. Let your children know that they can have fun playing with people in their household or small social bubble, but they’ll need to keep away from other children. And yes, that will feel strange to children who just want to play together. 

“It’s challenging because kids don’t really participate in social distancing,” Zink said. “They need to interact. That’s who they are.”

You can’t remove all of the risk of spreading illness at playgrounds, but you can definitely minimize it, Zink said. When planning a playground visit, put together a small play group that is your new social bubble. Then, always go with them to the playground and only play with that group, she said. Choose to visit playgrounds when they’re least crowded. Zink also suggested trying something new. One family had playground equipment in their backyard and decided to invite a few other families who could use it, one at a time. That way, the kids in each family could enjoy time at the playground without risking interaction with other kids.

Paula Wright biking family Safe Playgrounds Blog.jpgZink acknowledged it’s hard to clean everything you might touch at a playground. That’s why some parents, like Paula Wright of Anchorage, have decided not to return to them right now. 

“I just think it’s impossible with so many kids to keep the surfaces clean,” said Wright, a mother of two young boys. It’s also hard to keep your distance from others while there. 

“To me, it’s a big challenge that we can easily avoid by going other places.”

Zink also encouraged considering options other than playgrounds: Explore the woods. Go for a hike in our wide open spaces. Wright’s family built a swing in the backyard. They’ve been hiking and biking on trails, gone camping more than usual, and looked for big fields where the boys could run. 

“We live in the coolest playground in the entire world,” Zink said. 

Below are related Questions and Answers about using playgrounds during the pandemic.

What are the important reminders for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at parks and playgrounds?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends hanging posters and signs in parks and playgrounds to share these reminders:

  • Wear face coverings when possible. They’re most important when you or your children might get within 6 feet of others. Face coverings shouldn’t be worn by children younger than 2 and anyone who has trouble breathing. 
  • Stay home if you are sick or do not feel well.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Throw out tissues in the trash. 
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. 
    • If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and rub hands together until dry. Young children should be supervised to ensure they are using sanitizer safely.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

How are Alaska parks departments cleaning playgrounds during the pandemic? 

Parks departments across the state are busy cleaning and hanging COVID-19 signs in playgrounds this summer. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department is following the CDC guidelines for parks, which call for routine cleaning in outdoor areas instead of disinfecting all surfaces, said David Jones, the parks maintenance manager.

 “Spraying disinfectant on sidewalks and in parks is not an efficient use of disinfectant supplies and has not been proven to reduce the risk of COVID-19 to the public,” the CDC stated. “You should continue existing cleaning and hygiene practices for outdoor areas.”

For the Fairbanks staff, that means starting their work days early each morning, seven days a week, by visiting playgrounds before the kids arrive. The parks department maintains about 30 properties in Fairbanks, and 19 of them have playground equipment, Jones said. The staff visits as many as possible daily, cleaning with soap and water and with diluted bleach on some surfaces, he said. Some parks have restrooms, and the Fairbanks parks department cleans those twice a day. Keeping up with that schedule has been challenging because the department is understaffed right now, Jones said. That’s because the department couldn’t recruit seasonal staff when the pandemic began this spring. They’ve tried to maximize what they can routinely clean by temporarily removing some items and storing them for later. 

“I pulled a lot of benches and picnic tables to reduce the amount of surfaces you clean,” Jones said.

Durand in Anchorage oversees a large group of properties: 224 parks with 82 playgrounds. Before parks reopened in early May, his staff power washed each playground. He said it’s not possible for his staff to clean each playground daily, so they are cleaning them as needed. They plan to power wash several times this year with a disinfecting solution. The Anchorage staff also added hand sanitizer this summer to each porta potty in parks and playgrounds, Durand said.

What kind of cleaning supplies should families use before, during and after visiting playgrounds?

Parks department staff are routinely cleaning playgrounds, but as Jones pointed out, they can’t control how clean playgrounds remain throughout the day. Families should bring hand wipes and sanitizer, and make sure everyone uses it before and after playing. They could use soap or water instead, but often those are found in public restrooms and Zink recommends not using those restrooms if possible given all of the high-touch surfaces that need regular cleaning. Consider bringing disinfecting wipes to clean surfaces you’d touch, sit on, or eat on — like swings, picnic tables and benches. 

Should children and parents wear face coverings while at playgrounds?

You often don’t see children and parents wearing face coverings at playgrounds right now, but Zink recommends that they do so when it’s not just their family playing there. At playgrounds, children tend to get close together on equipment. Parents tend to gather and talk. Playing closely and gathering decreases the distance between people, which can increase the chances of spreading illness. Keeping that distance is important, but so is wearing face coverings when you are talking or playing closer than 6 feet away from others. 

Paula Wright son mask Safe Playgrounds Blog.jpg

Visit the COVID-19 in Alaska​ website for updated information for the state.

Photographs courtesy of Paula Wright


June 25
COVID-19 test results can take time. Here’s why.

FaceCovering2020 photo.PNGJUNE 25, 2020  These blogs usually start with someone’s story. For many years, my job has been listening to Alaskans and then sharing their experiences, most recently through these blogs.  

Today is different because it’s my story. 

My name is Ann Potempa, and I’ve run the Play Every Day campaign since it launched in 2012. My oldest son and I got tested for COVID-19 this month and waited a longer-than-expected amount of time for our test results — almost a full week. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, asked me to write about our experience. 

“There is a lot of variability in the wait time,” Zink said. “I think the variability in it can be very challenging.”

The challenge comes in having to limit your family’s or household’s activities until your results come back. We received a piece of paper with this guidance after leaving the testing location: “You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.” Staying away from others while you wait for results prevents the spread of possible infection.

The state’s health department and laboratories are improving how they work together to complete COVID-19 tests, hiring staff and quickening the sharing of results from lab to provider to patient to minimize the wait when possible — ideally closer to three days from test to result. Zink said they’re trying many strategies to make it easier to get tested and to get results quicker. She also said Alaskans can call providers and urgent care centers in some communities to find rapid tests that can turn around results in less than an hour. 

For many people like me who got non-rapid tests, however, the results take more time to process and return. I’m sharing our testing experience to show how, and why.

Testing and staying away from others while waiting for results

Typically, Play Every Day is focused on promoting daily activity and healthy drinks for Alaska children. We believe it’s important to pivot right now and talk with families about COVID-19 and other broader issues that affect children’s health: How can they keep active while preventing the spread of illness? If they develop symptoms, should they test, and what can they expect in terms of receiving those results?

This month, my 14-year-old son and I had minor symptoms that in other years would have seemed like nothing special: chills, body aches, slightly higher-than-normal temperatures. At this time in Alaska, the recommendation is to test even minor symptoms. So we did that Tuesday, June 9. Then we waited. 

As the days passed without results, I began to wonder why. This led me to work with Alaska’s health leaders to make sure Alaskans were given realistic turnaround times for COVID-19 tests. I find it’s easier to muster the patience to wait if I know how long it could take, and if I know why I am waiting. 

Waiting is frustrating, even for people like me who work in public health and focus on this pandemic every day. It’s surprising how much we needed to cancel while we stayed away from others and waited for results. Our family canceled activities for everyone, unsure if the others who weren’t tested could be sick and just not symptomatic. We rescheduled three haircuts, which meant the stylist lost business that week. Our home improvement contractors lost work because we didn’t want to put them at risk of infection by being in our house. My son gave up his appointment to test for a driver’s permit, which felt like a big deal for a teenager. Both my sons lost a week at an outside summer camp that had made significant changes to prevent spreading COVID-19. My youngest son was crushed, because he lost out the most — given he wasn’t even the one who had symptoms.

A week earlier, Pegge Erkeneff of Kasilof had a similar experience. After having mild symptoms, she visited the Kenai Public Health Center on Wednesday, June 3, to get tested. 

“You now need to consider yourself positive until you hear from us,” the nurse told her. That meant staying away from other people until she got her result.

On the drive home, she realized what she had to cancel: a Thursday appointment with the dog groomer and a Friday haircut for herself that she’d put off since February due to the pandemic. She even canceled using a pick-up service at the grocery store in the unlikely case that she’d get into an accident while driving to the store and unintentionally expose an emergency responder.

Waiting for results got harder as the days added up, she said. She didn’t get her negative result until five days after she got tested.

“There is the real frustration of waiting and patience, and then just letting go,” Erkeneff said. “This is just what life is like now. And I’m making a choice (to get tested) — for my own peace of mind and for others.”

It’s very important to stay away from others after testing to protect them in case you are infected, said Coleman Cutchins, Alaska’s lead clinical pharmacist who is overseeing the COVID-19 laboratory testing. Cutchins explained the testing process in Alaska, why there’s variability in turning around results, and what the state’s laboratories are doing to quicken that process when possible. 

Understanding why turnaround times can vary for results

The time it takes to turn around a COVID-19 test result depends on a number of factors: what kind of test was run, where the laboratory is located, the number of samples that came through that day or week to be processed, even whether or not the test is for someone who really needs to know quickly if they’re sick — such as someone in a nursing home who could face higher chances for serious illness. 

Many people getting COVID-19 tests in Alaska are getting what’s called a high extraction PCR test, Cutchins said. Never mind the complicated name. What it means is these tests require a multi-step chemical analysis in a laboratory to determine a positive or negative result. These are the standard tests used to detect viruses like COVID-19. 

If you get a COVID-19 PCR test done in Alaska, it could be run in labs inside the state or outside. As of mid June, there were three main laboratories in the state running tests: the two state public health labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and the Alaska Native Medical Center lab, Cutchins said. Some people’s samples — like my family’s — are shipped out of state to commercial labs to run. Our samples went to a lab in California. A number of factors, including health insurance, can affect where a sample is taken to analyze and return a result, Cutchins said. Shipping some samples gives the state more options in terms of running tests, but it can add to the turnaround time of getting results if you add the time to fly the sample out of state. That’s not always the case, though. Cutchins said some samples shipped out of state returned results in about two days. 

The number of tests done daily in Alaska is a very fluid number, Cutchins said, and can triple from one day to the next. Recently, the number of tests significantly increased as health and travel mandates required them for certain medical procedures and made them available to people arriving into airports. As of this week, almost 100,000 tests​ have been run for those in Alaska.

Comparing and contrasting rapid and non-rapid tests

A rapid test may be the right choice for an individual, but the wrong choice for other situations, such as a planeload of people. Cutchins uses a simple cup of coffee to explain the difference between running a PCR COVID-19 test at a lab and running a rapid test using a machine. If you only want one cup of coffee, you would use a machine that inserts one pod of grounds and returns a full cup of coffee. That’s like this rapid testing machine. It processes only one test at a time, but can turn around a result in 15 minutes to about an hour. 

If you have a large group of people needing coffee all at once, you wouldn’t buy 100 one-cup coffee machines. You’d call your local shop to brew a lot of coffee to serve everyone more quickly than a one-cup machine could do. That’s like the COVID-19 test run at a laboratory. A laboratory can run a large number of tests in a day, which means a longer turnaround time for the whole batch but a quicker turnaround time than you’d see if you ran each sample one at a time through machines. On a given day, that could mean running up to 3,000 tests through Alaska’s public health laboratories, Cutchins said.

A COVID-19 test starts with a health care provider inserting a swab into an individual’s nostril and collecting a sample of respiratory secretions, or instructing the individual to do the swabbing. For a sample that will be processed in a laboratory, the time between when the sample is taken and when it reaches a local lab could be hours. If it’s shipped outside Alaska, that lag could get longer by a day or so. Once at the lab, it can take about 12 hours to unpack the sample, prepare it in a sterile environment that doesn’t infect the laboratory workers, and run the test. At the end, a clinical biologist needs to interpret each result, one by one.

“It’s not like a pregnancy test,” Cutchins said. “It doesn’t give you a plus or a minus.”

He said it’s a lengthy process that you can’t make much faster given the current technology at labs. Other steps can add to that time, though, including entering results and transferring them back to the providers who ordered them, and ultimately to the person who got tested.

Rapid testing machines are available around the state, Cutchins said. For some of these machines, technicians insert the sample into the machine on site that can turn around a result in 15 minutes to an hour or so. These machines are particularly useful when there are small numbers of people who need testing and quick results are needed by health care providers, Cutchins said. Rapid tests do require more virus to be detected in the sample to return a positive result, he said.

A rapid test may be a good option for running a small number of tests, but it’s not the right tool for large flights, Cutchins said. An airplane full of people would quickly overwhelm a rapid testing system. Samples collected following the arrival of larger flights aren’t typically run in rapid machines. Instead, they’re sent in batches to larger laboratories to run using the longer process explained earlier, Cutchins said.

Improving Alaska’s lab capacity to turn around consistently quicker results

Cutchins said our family’s almost one-week turnaround time was longer than many experience. In the past week, though, he’s see turnaround times fluctuate overall — getting longer, shorter and then longer again. Many Alaskans, he said, can expect results in three to five days. His goal is to get most tests returned closer to three days for people in larger locations like Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough and Fairbanks, and four to five days for samples that are shipped to a lab in another community to complete testing. Quicker turnarounds for results are important to reduce waiting time, to improve the chances that people stay away from others while waiting for results, and to quicken public health nurses’ ability to reach out to people who’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive. 

Cutchins said the health department is using several strategies to reduce turnaround times. He’s updating a plan that doesn’t rely too heavily on one laboratory. If one lab faces higher demands, another can step in. If shipping out of state becomes problematic, more testing can shift back to the state public health laboratories. 

His plan prioritizes shorter turnaround times for those most in need. State health officials will make the fastest testing strategies available for people who need results as quickly as possible, such as someone facing higher chances of serious illness or living in a higher-risk setting like a nursing home. Other hospitals in Alaska are also working to purchase more laboratory equipment to run tests locally, he said.

Cutchins shared other good news, including new technology recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that could triple testing capacity. He said this could be available in Alaska within the coming months. Alaska’s public health labs are also hiring more staff to process and run tests. They just got new software that makes it easier to enter a test result, share it with providers and ultimately the patient. All of these can help return a faster result, Cutchins said.

Making things better while you wait

Our family has stayed with the same pediatric clinic in Anchorage since both of our sons were born. One of the first people to meet my oldest son within hours of his birth was his pediatrician. 

She had been closely watching for our lab results day after day. The clinic’s nurses regularly checked in with the lab. They would talk to me multiple times daily to give updates, even when there was none. On Sunday morning, five days after my nasal swab, I learned my results were negative. My son’s results, however, weren’t back yet. On the sixth day following our tests, our pediatrician called me to talk through the waiting period, saying she would continually check until she got an answer for my son.

And she did. 

At 10:51 p.m. that night, she texted his results: 

Negative. 

Our pediatrician’s kindness during off hours was my reminder of how much people care for each other right now. It’s a reminder that while you worry and wait and focus on your frustrations, there are people trying to make things better. That is the case here. Rapid tests are available in some communities so Alaskans can get same-day results. Multiple laboratories are increasing staff, making it easier to enter and share test results, and working together to run more tests as quickly as possible and return those results to the health care providers who ordered them. 

Then, your doctor can give you the answer you’ve been waiting for, even when it’s in the middle of the night.  

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June 17
Enjoy your Alaska summer, but play sports or watch games in ways that prevent spreading COVID-19

​JUNE 17, 2020 — Alaskans are out to play during long days that end in midnight sun. Softball fields are packed. The trails are teeming with bikers and walkers. Kids are back to playing full-contact soccer games, and parents are lined up on the sidelines to watch. 

These activities are taking place in Alaska communities while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Cases have been rising day after day since the end of May. Alaska now has more current cases than it did early in the outbreak when we first hunkered down. That means we all need to keep doing what we can to prevent the spread of illness while being active — especially when our activities involve groups of people.

Masked Soccer Moose.jpg

As Alaska reopens, your family gets to choose if they’ll participate in group activities and team sports. Different families are making different decisions about that after balancing the risk of spreading COVID-19 with the benefits of staying active. The message in Alaska is definitely to get out and play. It’s critical to improve your outlook and reduce your stress. So pick your favorite activity and do it. But if that activity typically involves groups of people — participants or spectators — you need to weigh the risks and benefits for your family and others you work with or regularly spend time with each week. Your family’s chances for serious illness may be low, but your actions and interactions could put others’ health at risk if you work in a nursing home or have close, frequent contact with customers, for example. If you participate in or watch sports, keep finding ways to limit the spread of illness to others. 

“If everyone gives a little right now, we will all get a lot,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “Choose to wear your face covering in public places. Keep staying at least six feet from others. If we all do that, we can keep Alaska’s COVID-19 cases low and continue to enjoy sports and other activities that we’ve been missing.”

Participating in and watching group sports must be done differently this year in order to keep Alaska’s COVID-19 cases as low as possible. That’s because attending gatherings, like those that happen with team sports, is one known interaction that increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Those chances go up when a child or coach interacts with more people, when physical interactions are closer and longer, and when multiple players increase the sharing of sports equipment.

 “I know how important summer sports are to families,” Zink said. “I’m hearing from a lot of parents wondering what to do. These are really hard decisions to make, and what works for one family may not work for another. If you spend time with an older person or someone else facing higher chances of illness, it’s very important to make sure your other interactions with people are at a distance. That includes your time participating in and watching sports.”

Anchorage Little League starts a late season by changing everything

Jessie Weiler grew up playing Dimond West Little League, her kids play Dimond West and she’s now the volunteer president. She surveyed Anchorage families to see if they’d participate this summer, and many said they wanted their kids to play ball. Dimond West put together a later-than-usual season that started with a COVID-19 mitigation plan, new consent forms and health assessments every time a child comes to the field. 

DWLL2.JPG“This is not a normal year,” Weiler said she tells parents. “When you think of traditional Little League and the traditional season, this is not it. We have basically restructured everything.”

“Start stretching now,” she said. “Because flexibility is going to be key.”

The special season has new rules for everything: Watching kids during practice is discouraged. Watching games is limited and parents must keep distance from others. Kids, volunteers and parents must wear face coverings whenever possible, but kids won’t be required to wear them during games, Weiler said. Kids are strongly discouraged from sharing any gear. Balls and other gear are sanitized between games, and there’s hand sanitizer when you enter and also on the field.

Dimond West Little League is making it easier to follow these new rules. They bought buffs for every child and volunteer, so everyone on the field will have one to cover their noses and mouths. They also gathered extra bats and helmets to lend to children who didn’t have their own.

Alaska families choose to participate or not in summer group sports

Harlow Robinson is an Anchorage parent of two teenage boys interested in other summer sports. He’s also the executive director of Healthy Futures, an Alaska nonprofit program that provides free physical activity challenges for children. This summer, he started organizing a community forum called the “Responsible Return to Alaska Sports and Recreation,” which has a regularly updated Facebook page. Robinson and his wife, a local nurse, talked with their sons about balancing the value of being involved in their favorite sports versus the potential risk of spreading infection. They decided to let their sons participate.

“We don’t take any of these decisions lightly,” Robinson said. “We made the decision that allowing our kids to participate in the activities that are important to them is an acceptable risk so long as we feel like we are doing what we can to lower the chances of spreading infection.”

Robinson said his son’s running group has a safety plan to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. The teens are required to bring face coverings and stay separated while running outside. If they pass anyone, they’re required to wear the covering. His son’s basketball team also shared similar precautions about keeping distance from others, although that’s not possible when actually playing a game.

“Our biggest concern is protecting people in the community that are most vulnerable,” Robinson said. “Through all of this, we maintained small bubbles of interactions. We’ve decided to let the sports community into those bubbles.”

At the same time, he said, the family maintained rigid limitations on how they interacted with the teens’ grandparents. That included always wearing a mask around them, meeting outdoors, and staying at least 6 feet away. Robinson’s family also tightened other interactions. They shop one at a time in stores. They wear face coverings in public places. 

“Because at the end of the day, there’s still a pandemic,” Robinson said.

Other Alaska parents have carefully considered the decision of allowing their kids to participate in summer sports, and have decided to decline. An Alaska mother of a family who chose not to be named has a teenager who plays volleyball. The family read COVID-19 mitigation plans for summer volleyball camps prior to deciding if their daughter would attend. The mother said she let her daughter try a camp, but then learned that the other players were not keeping distance from others. They were gathering in groups, high-fiving and not wearing face coverings. She shared concern that all participants in sports are not being as careful as they could be to prevent spreading COVID-19. Her daughter stopped participating in that camp. 

 “I want my daughter to play volleyball in the worst way because she loves volleyball,” the mother said. 

“There was a gap between the safety measures our family was taking and those of the organizers and many of the participants in the camp,” she said. “The need to responsibly navigate that divide was too much pressure for a teenager.”

Taking steps to stay healthy and prevent spreading illness through sports

If you or your child chooses to participate in a group activity or team sport, you can take steps to improve the chances of staying healthy and preventing the spread of illness to teammates, coaches and spectators. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published considerations for ways that sports organizations can protect players, families and communities. 

The CDC explains the risk of COVID-19 spreading in youth sports as follows:

  • Lowest Risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members
  • Increasing Risk: Team-based practice
  • More Risk: Within-team competition
  • Even More Risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area
  • Highest Risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas
​Below are additional related Questions and Answers. 

What should you think about when choosing the activities and team sports for your family? 

Dr. Zink asked families to consider these questions as they make their decisions: 

  • How much risk is your family willing to accept? Do you work with someone at higher risk of serious illness or have someone at higher risk in your small, trusted social bubble
  • Is there a quality mitigation plan and are coaches, participants and spectators following it? These plans should address the following questions, as examples:
    • Does the plan include engaging in physical distancing while not actively engaged in play (for example, during practice, on the sidelines, or in the dugout)?
    • Does it limit the unnecessary use of shared equipment and gear (for example, protective gear, bats and water bottles)?
    • Does it limit nonessential visitors, spectators and volunteers during practices and games?
    • Does it keep game interaction within the local community (no travel)? 
  • Does everyone agree not to participate in practices and games if they have or a household member has COVID-19 symptoms? 
  • Are organizers of activities and team sports keeping a roster of everyone who participates or attends, in the case that someone gets COVID-19 and others will need to be notified if they had close contact with that ill person? 

As with all COVID-19 guidance, please check with your local community to ensure you are following specific requirements in your area.

How can parents keep the gatherings from getting too large, increasing the chances of spreading illness?

In a typical year, the whole family might attend soccer practice or games. After all, you want to cheer on your child and it’s a great way to catch up with friends on the sidelines. This is not a typical year, however, and socializing, yelling and cheering within close proximity of others needs to be avoided to prevent spreading illness.

If your child is old enough, choose not to stay at the practice or game. Remain in your car when you drop them off and pick them up, or choose to walk or bike. If you stay, have one parent come and leave other family members at home. 

Greet others and socialize from a distance. Don’t gather with others. Make sure you stand or set up your lawn chair or blanket at least 6 feet away from others or farther if you’ll be cheering. Ring bells and use other ways to support the team that don’t require using your voice. Wear a face covering while you are there.

What should you bring — or not bring — to group activities to prevent the spread of illness?

This is not the summer to share foods and drinks. Bring only foods and drinks for your own child. Don’t encourage children to group up at the end of a game to eat or drink together. Rethink your end-of-season celebration. Instead of a potluck party that involves sharing pizza, schedule a picnic and ask everyone to bring their own food and blanket.  

Bring your own hand sanitizer and wipes, using sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Sanitize your hands often, including before and after touching bats, balls or other gear; before eating or drinking; and after using a porta potty or restroom. If it’s an option, wash your hands with soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer.

Should kids share gear during practices and games? 

To prevent spreading illness, participants and coaches are encouraged not to share any type of gear. That includes bats, gloves, helmets, water bottles, jerseys, pinnies, towels and more. 

Can I drive the carpool to practice or games? 

This year, carpooling is discouraged to prevent people from multiple households having close contact for an extended amount of time. The best choice is to bike, walk or drive with only family members or those in your small, trusted social bubble​

“If you do drive people from outside your household to an activity, everyone in the car should wear face coverings,” Zink said. “If possible, open car windows to improve air flow and reduce the chances of spreading illness.”

Your child is in the championship game, and you and grandma really want to watch. Should you go? 

Look for creative ways that don’t involve actually attending the game. Since grandma is at higher risk of serious illness, help organize a parent who will video the game and share it in real time online, using an app like Facebook Live. That way grandma can watch, too. 

You can prevent spreading COVID-19 by limiting close contact with others — including other spectators at group activities and games. Bring your own chair, blanket or umbrella. Usually, the kind thing to do is to share what you bring with others. This summer, the kind thing is not to share. Stay on your own blanket or spot on the bleachers and at least 6 feet from others, and even farther if you’ll be cheering. 

What happens if a coach or player on a sports team tests positive for COVID-19? 

When Alaska’s public health nurses receive a report of a positive COVID-19 test result, they immediately reach out to that person (or to their parent or guardian) to interview them about who they had close contact with recently. Close contact typically means 15 or more minutes of contact within 6 feet of someone outside your household. If that close contact includes all or most members of a sports team, the nurses would contact each person to request that they quarantine themselves for 14 days from the date of their last exposure with the sick teammate or coach. The nurses may have to contact the coaches to get a complete roster of who was present during the practice, game or event. That could include spectators and parents. 

Visit the "COVID-19 in Alaska" website for updated information for the state.


Photograph courtesy of Dimond West Little League in Anchorage

​​​​​
June 04
Should you attend that party or community event? State of Alaska shares recommendations for summer gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic

​JUNE 4, 2020 —​ Your son’s friend has a birthday party coming up and your son really wants to go. 

You’ve been invited to a neighborhood potluck for the Fourth of July. That’s 20 households up and down your street and everyone plans to share food and drinks. 

You’ve seen an announcement for a fun run, a parade or a concert where hundreds may gather.

We’ve been hunkered down for months, and people are wanting to get together. Do you go ahead with that birthday party, neighborhood potluck, concert or fun run? And if you do, what can you do to reduce the chances of getting sick or spreading COVID-19 among the guests? 

 “The safest thing is for us to all be in a bubble and to not interact ever together, but that is also not how you live,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “So what ways are we able to live and be meaningful and mindful, while minimizing the chances of making others sick?” 

The state is reopening, but Zink reminds Alaskans that “open” doesn’t mean “over.” COVID-19, the virus that’s led to a worldwide pandemic, is not gone. It is still spreading from person to person in Alaska communities and will continue to do so if people don’t take steps to prevent transmission: keep distance from others, wear face coverings in public, wash hands and surfaces, and stay home when sick. Those steps should be taken if you attend gatherings of any size — even if those attending are your friends and family members who are outside your household or small social bubble.

Here’s why: Gatherings of all sizes increase the chances of spreading COVID-19, and those chances go up as the number of attendees go up. A recent summary by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discussed how several types of interactions in recent months led to COVID-19 spreading quickly. One of those interactions is attending large gatherings. The State of Alaska and CDC have provided guidance about organizing large events.  

But smaller gatherings can spread illness, too. Just in the past week, a number of new COVID-19 infections have been connected to get-togethers and parties that took place in Alaska communities. In some cases, people came to the gatherings from other communities, even other states. Some people had close contact at these parties. 

Leslie Felts is an Alaska public health nurse manager who is helping to trace possible contacts of people infected with COVID-19. She’s noted several types of interactions at these gatherings that can increase the chances of spreading infection: Some people stood near others and had lingering conversations. Some hugged or kissed each other. Some drove in the same car as others, lengthening close contact with people outside their household. 

 “People are social and they want to get together,” Zink said. “Gathering helps us feel hopeful and connected during a really hard time, but we have to do it as safely as possible. This is not the time to have close contact and face-to-face conversations with others at large or small get-togethers. It’s the time to be creative, to come up with new ways to see people and socialize but still keep distance from others.”

Creative approaches to encourage physical distancing might mean drawing chalk markings on streets, sidewalks and driveways to help people see what 6 feet of minimum distance looks like at gatherings. Check out this idea used at a San Francisco park to show spacing among people. Some venues have blocked off rows of seats between non-household groups to space people apart. 

Risk-assessment-FB.jpg
Zink, Felts and Alaska epidemiologists discussed gatherings and community events this week with Play Every Day.

What kind of get-togethers fall under gatherings and community events?

These get-togethers can range in size. They could include birthday parties, graduation celebrations, neighborhood block parties, weddings, funerals, and other get-togethers with family and friends. On the larger side, they could include parades, sports events and fun runs, fairs and concerts.   

The State of Alaska recently published lessons learned and guidance for organizers planning large gatherings that include more than 250 people. This number includes all attendees during the entire course of the event, such as participants, spectators, players, performers, staff, vendors, volunteers, security, medical personnel and others.

Your family has been invited to a gathering. Should you go? 

As Alaska reopens, your family can make a choice after considering a number of factors. Here are just a few questions to consider:

  • Is the gathering inside or outside?
  • How large is it, and will you be able to keep enough space between you and others?
  • Have the other attendees been following the recommended precautions to prevent getting and spreading illness?
  • Are attendees encouraged to wear face coverings and to stay home if feeling ill?
  • If food and drink are served, are they being shared in a way that helps prevent the spread of infection? One example to prevent the spread of illness would be having one chosen cook at the event who wears a face covering and serves foods and drinks to everyone, limiting the number of people who touch the serving utensils. Or, people attending the event could be asked to bring their own food and drink and not share it with others. 
  • Will you be able to wash or sanitize your hands, and will hosts or organizers be cleaning and disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces like doorknobs, handles or tabletops?

Overall, outdoor gatherings typically have a lower risk of spreading illness due to the air flow and amount of open space for distance. But outdoor events still must offer other precautions in order to prevent spreading COVID-19. That includes giving people enough space to stay at least 6 feet from others, recommending or even providing face coverings when people may get closer than 6 feet, offering enough hand washing and sanitizing stations, cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and more.

How can you adjust your interactions with others at gatherings to prevent spreading illness?

Human interactions aren’t typically described using math, but Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, laid out an equation for how these interactions can lead to spreading illness: 

The likelihood of an interaction spreading illness is a function of distance and time.

When someone gets a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, a public health nurse quickly reaches out to that person to find out with whom they had close contact. Distance is defined as close contact — being within 6 feet of someone. Time is typically important when it’s for 15 or more minutes, McLaughlin said. Again, distance and time. 

But it doesn’t always look as simple as that, McLaughlin said. Consider that an infected person is at a gathering, and a number of people are in that same room. Someone may be farther away than 6 feet from the infected person, but in the same general area for an hour or more. That lengthy exposure could lead to spreading infection to others in the area. Or, you might be within 6 feet of an infected person for just a few seconds — but during that time the infected person sneezes or coughs into your face. The time part of that equation is now significantly shorter, but that one sneeze or cough may be enough to spread the virus. 

Given all of that, McLaughlin, Felts and others recommended adjusting your interactions at gatherings to prevent spreading illness: 

  • Keep a 6-foot distance from others who are not part of your household or small social bubble — even if they are good friends or family members. 
  • Don’t share cars on the way to or from gatherings and don’t linger within 6 feet of others at the gathering.
  • Don’t stay in one place for long. Moving around encourages air flow around you and can help prevent spreading the virus. Gathering outside — but still at a distance — is usually safer than spending time with others in an enclosed space.
  • Bring your own chairs, plates, silverware, glasses, food, drinks and hand sanitizer.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands often.
  • Stay home if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 and encourage others to do the same. Possible symptoms include fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell, and other symptoms listed on this CDC website

Should you wear face coverings at parties and gatherings? 

Wear a face covering over your nose and mouth when you are within 6 feet of “others.” In this case, “others” includes people who don’t live in your household or are not part of your small, trusted social bubble. At the end of this Q and A, you’ll find a reminder about the social bubble concept for Alaska. 

You typically come within 6 feet of others when you’re talking to people, receiving or giving food and drinks, or standing in lines. COVID-19 can be a sneaky virus, infecting some people without causing symptoms. Those infected people can spread the virus through their respiratory droplets without even realizing they have COVID-19. Infected people wearing face coverings are less likely to spread the virus to others. Healthy people wearing face coverings are less likely to catch the virus from others.  If everyone who is able to wear a face covering does so when they’re in close contact with others, the possibility of COVID-19 spreading is greatly reduced. Face coverings should not be used by children under 2 or those who would have difficulty breathing with a covering in place.

It’s your nephew’s birthday and you want to show that you love him. You want to congratulate the bride. Can you give them a hug, kiss or handshake at these gatherings? 

Right now, the best way to show others you care about them is to give them space instead of giving them a hug, kiss or handshake. Again, some people have COVID-19 with no symptoms or minor symptoms, so they don’t realize they’re sick. If they hug or have close contact with others, they could spread a virus they don’t know they have. No one wants to unintentionally make a friend or loved one sick.  

Should you attend a get-together or community event if you have higher chances of serious illness related to COVID-19?

People in higher-risk groups should talk with their health care provider about attending get-togethers and large events. That includes people who are 65 or older and those living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. It also includes people who have ongoing health problems, such as heart and lung conditions, asthma, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, cancer, severe obesity and other conditions that may weaken the immune system.  

Slightly expanding your social bubble is a way to stay connected without gatherings. What’s the safest way to create that trusted bubble?

Alaska families, individuals and couples may be feeling lonely and needing more social contact with others right now. Those households can consider adding one other trusted household to their social bubble. If you do choose to expand your bubble, Zink advises keeping that bubble small with the same members over time. She strongly cautions against mixing bubbles. Creating a slightly larger bubble requires a special agreement between households. Members of this new bubble must agree not to join another bubble, because if one person in your group gets the virus, it will likely infect others, too.  Everyone within the bubble must agree to follow health and safety precautions, like minimizing interactions outside their bubble and staying at least 6 feet away from people outside the bubble. This concept is further explained in this recent Play Every Day blog​.  




 



​​​​​
May 14
As Alaska reopens, precautions still apply but families can slightly expand their social bubbles to feel more connected with others

​MAY 14, 2020 — Since March, Alaskans have been making many sacrifices to stay home and keep at least 6 feet away from non-household members. Limiting social contact has had an extremely positive impact on keeping our COVID-19 rates low, allowing hospitals and health care providers to care for those most in need. However, it has also been a lonely and difficult time for many people. 

Families and friends.pngParents are struggling to work as they also care for their children. Children are missing their friends and the routine of school. Single people or elderly adults may feel even more isolated. 

As communities across Alaska are starting to reopen responsibly and certain businesses have opened their doors, families are wondering what that might also mean for social interactions. Should we keep staying 6 feet away from others? Can families and friends start socializing with another family or friend? Can kids play together? Can you go for a hike with your best friend?

“We have worked so well together in Alaska, staying close to home in March and April and keeping our number of infections low,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “Alaskans acted together and took this seriously, which is why we’ve had such success.  We’re in this for the long haul, and we don’t want to undo those hard-earned gains.” 

Zink said we are now entering a time when Alaskans have more choices. It will continue to be important for everyone to follow basic precautions and adhere to current state mandates and health guidance. But within those rules, individuals and families can consider their own risk level and make choices that best fit their families as restrictions ease.  

The safest option is to continue to limit your contacts only to your immediate household and to stay home as much as possible. Zink realizes, however, that some people may need more social support over the long term.  

“We know many people are feeling lonely. They want more social contact or could use some help with child care,” she said. “One choice as we reopen is to slightly expand your social bubble to be more connected with a few close friends or family who help support each other, while continuing to prevent a considerable increase in infections.”

In this Q and A, Zink addresses in more detail how families can make safe choices that meet their own personal needs while protecting others.

As Alaska reopens responsibly, should you still stay 6 feet away from others outside your household? 

Yes. Reopening allows us to start returning to some services, like getting haircuts and going to retail stores. It does not, however, mean that you should get close to others the way we did before the pandemic, Zink said. 

Reopening the state, phase by phase, will be more likely to continue if Alaska can keep the number of new infections low. And that’s more likely to happen if Alaskans can keep following the precautions already in place. That means continuing to maintain at least 6 feet from others to minimize the spread of the disease. It’s also important to continue with these other basic precautions: 

  • Wash your hands often and well with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if you can’t access soap.
  • Avoid touching your face, including your mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Wear a face covering:
    • When in public and in places that are reopening, such as stores and salons.
    • When exerting yourself through physical activity or passing within 20 feet of others outside.

​​​​What else can Alaskans do? 

  • Minimize your trips out in public, especially if you have regular contact with people who have higher chances for severe illness.
  • Continue to work from home when possible. When at work, maintain a 6-foot distance from coworkers and customers.
  • Keep a daily journal of anyone you came into close contact with during the day. If you can’t recall all of the people you’ve had 10 minutes or more of in-person contact with during your week, then you are likely having too much contact with others at this time.
  • Stay home if you are sick or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Get tested immediately if you are experiencing symptoms.

“The choices that each Alaskan makes during this time will have a big impact on our ability as a whole to keep infections low in Alaska,” Zink said. “That means it matters every single time you choose to stay 6 feet away from others outside your household, every time you wear a face covering in a store, and every time you stay home when you are feeling sick. Every single action on your part adds up to us staying healthier as a state.”

Zink said taking these steps will remain critical for months to come — particularly until there is a vaccine and effective treatment options for people infected with the virus. 

Can we start visiting other families or friends?

Yes, but be cautious. Keep physical distance from others, even close friends, and try to do most of your socializing outdoors where air flow is better and the virus has a harder time spreading. We’re entering an ideal time for this now in Alaska, with longer days and warmer weather. But even outdoors, it continues to be important to stay at least 6 feet away from people outside your household. 

Can we expand our social bubble to include more people who we interact with in a closer way? 

“This is a very interesting question, and one we’ve been exploring in recent weeks,” Zink said. “We’re watching other countries like New Zealand and some Canadian provinces try this approach. It’s also been explored by modeling studies in terms of the safest ways to expand your social bubble while still keeping the spread of infection as low as possible.”

To minimize the chance of spreading infection, again the safest thing is to keep hunkering down with only your household and minimize public outings. But families, individuals and couples may be feeling lonely and needing more social contact with others. Those households could consider adding one other trusted household to their social bubble, Zink said. Think of this as an expansion of your family. You will have more help and more people to socialize with, and that’s a plus. With a bigger family, though, you will have more to keep track of — including how much contact each member has with others. 

If you do choose to expand your social bubble, Zink advises keeping your bubble small with the same members over time. She strongly cautions against mixing bubbles. Creating a slightly larger bubble requires a special agreement between households. Members of this new bubble must agree not to join another bubble, because if one person in your group gets the virus, it will likely infect others, too.  Everyone within the bubble must agree to follow health and safety precautions, like minimizing interactions outside their bubble and staying at least 6 feet away from people outside the bubble. 

Consider your family’s needs and those of others when you think about expanding your social bubble. Would it be helpful to include an aunt, uncle and cousins, or another family, to help with child care? Does someone in your family have special needs that would be met by expanding your bubble? Do you have neighbors you want to see more often? Do you need help caring for an elderly parent? 

“The idea is to build your bubble so it’s mutually beneficial for everyone involved,” Zink said. “You have to think carefully about everyone’s needs and then selectively connect with just a few others in ways that benefit everyone involved.” 

Once you’ve built a slightly expanded bubble, the way you interact with those inside it can loosen up a bit. You don’t need to stay 6 feet away from people in your bubble and you don’t need to wear face coverings around them. You can invite people in your bubble into your home. You can share a meal. Your kids can play together inside or outside. Adults can socialize with each other, and parents can exchange child care. You can drive together in the same car to go for a hike or bike ride together. In other words, things can feel pretty close to normal within your bubble. 

Slightly expanding your social bubble must be done carefully and safely to prevent the spread of infection:

  • Keep members of the bubble the same week after week. Don’t add or subtract members as you go. One exception to this is if someone in your bubble gets sick. The ill person will need to be quickly isolated and the whole bubble may need to be quarantined, including missing work and being separated from each other. 
  • Play and socialize in person only within your bubble. Kids can play with a small group of other children in their social bubble, but they still need to limit interaction with and stay 6 feet away from other children outside of their bubble. Adults also shouldn’t socialize in close proximity (closer than 6 feet) with members of another social bubble. 
  • Be careful to protect people inside your bubble. If you are a caregiver for an older parent, a relative or someone else who needs help, you can build your social bubble to include that person. Zink said it’s important for people who create bubbles that include members at higher risk for serious illness to keep those bubbles as small as possible. People who are at higher risk for serious illness should not have interaction with anyone who has regular contact with others, such as health care workers or grocery store clerks. 

“Having these conversations to build a new social bubble will likely feel awkward, like you’re picking a team and some of your closest friends and family won’t be on it,” Zink said. “I definitely understand that, but it’s something to consider and work through. The focus of these expanded bubbles is to increase your support network if you want to, while still minimizing the chance that someone in your bubble will become infected and spread illness to others. Keeping our bubbles small and consistent is really important to prevent an increase in the number of infections and a stress on our health care providers and hospitals.”

As with all precautions, Alaskans still need to monitor their local guidance in case it requires more restrictions about interacting with others outside their household. For example, if the rules state that you may participate in an activity only with household members, that refers to your actual household, not your expanded social bubble. Please follow the guidance so Alaska can keep moving forward and easing restrictions instead of needing to reinstate them. 

Can families visit playgrounds? 

Keep checking your local and school district guidance on playgrounds. Some communities and districts have started reopening playgrounds, including the Anchorage School District and Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department. If you are going to use playgrounds, however, your children still need to stay at least 6 feet away from others not in their household or social bubble, and children ages 2 and older should wear a face covering while playing. Playground equipment also will be touched by many people, which could increase the chances of spreading infection. Make sure to thoroughly wash children’s hands after touching playground equipment. When soap is not available, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Supervise young children when they use hand sanitizer to prevent them from swallowing it. 

Should we still limit playing or socializing with grandparents, other adults over age 65 or people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness? 

This has been an incredibly challenging time for grandparents and older adults, as well as their families who want to spend time together. Right now, the safest way to spend time with grandparents and older adults is to do so outdoors, and for grandkids to stay at least 6 feet away from their grandparents, Zink said. Take advantage of these long, warm days and enjoy a visit by sitting at a distance from each other on the deck. Go for a walk together, but stay at least 6 feet apart and wear face coverings if you could pass near others, especially people at higher risk of illness. Continue to have regular visits through phone, email or online apps like FaceTime and Skype. Keeping this distance is most important to protect the health of older Alaskans and others at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19. 

I need a hug. You need a hug. Can that happen with people outside your social bubble? 

So many of us are ready to show each other how much we’ve missed them, but that will have to wait. 

“I know it’s so hard to refrain from touching your friends. We’re social creatures and accustomed to physical interaction,” Zink said. “But the more we can keep our distance right now, the better off we will be. Try to find a unique way to say hello to a friend, like an air high five, an air fist bump, an air hug or a special wave or gesture. I’ve seen people having fun with this, which is inspiring and hopeful. We can find ways to stay close and connected, while refraining from contact.” 

Stay tuned. Enjoy time with a few more friends and family, but remember this could change. 

As health guidance on COVID-19 is shared, we’re continually reminded of this message: Stay tuned because things may change. That’s still the case. Alaska’s health and political leaders are closely watching what happens as we have more contact with others. 

Slightly expanded social bubbles are possible right now because the spread of infection is low in Alaska. If the number of infections increases as our contact with others goes up, the state as a whole or individual communities may need to restrict interaction again and return to hunkering down with just family and household members. 

“We know it could be many months before we have a trusted vaccine and treatments that work. We need endurance to get through this time, and I know that’s hard,” Zink said. “When possible, we want to make more options available to Alaskans. We want everyone to be able to get the support they need to stay strong as we continue to cope with COVID-19. It’s reasonable now to slightly expand your social circle. Just be sure to keep that group small and consistent and follow precautions that meet the needs of your own unique situation to keep everyone safe.”

Keep monitoring Alaska's COVID-19 webpage​ and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services webpage for updates. 

May 13
Survey reveals Alaska children are playing less during the pandemic, which is concerning for their physical and mental health

PAN Graph.pngMAY 13, 2020 — Alaska kids are now getting less physical activity and more non-academic screen time than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

That’s what nearly 750 parents across Alaska said when filling out a recent survey from the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). Parents from every region of the state responded, but about 70% of them were from Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough or Fairbanks area. The full results of that survey called HEALTH are now online

“It’s concerning that 6 out of 10 parents said their child is getting less physical activity each day than before the pandemic,” said Karol Fink, registered dietitian and manager of Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition program. “Daily activity can really help relieve the stresses that children might be feeling right now. The same goes for adults. Physical activity can improve your mood and reduce your stress and feelings of depression.”

Positive results can be immediate, Fink said. Just one session of activity can lower your blood pressure, improve your body’s ability to keep blood sugars level and help you sleep better that night.

Since April, thousands of Alaska parents have filled out online surveys from DHSS to share how the pandemic is impacting their lives. The first survey that was completed between April 13–23, 2020, revealed that 3 out of 4 Alaska parents were concerned that the pandemic is negatively impacting their child’s physical health. Even more parents were concerned about the impact on their child’s mental health.

Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition and Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology programs worked together on the second, most recent survey. Alaska parents completed it between April 22 and May 4, 2020. This HEALTH survey showed the following, in addition to the physical activity findings shared above:

  • Many Alaska children have been learning at home this spring, so there’s an expected increase in academic-related screen time. But parents indicated that screen time not spent on schoolwork has increased as well.  
    • Nearly 8 out of 10 (78%) parents said their child is getting more non-academic screen time each day than before the pandemic. This includes time that a child spends in front of a TV, computer, smart phone, or other electronic device watching shows, playing games, accessing the internet, or using social media. 
  • Families are very informed about recommendations to be active outside in a safe way during the pandemic:
    • Nearly every parent responding to the survey is "very aware" of the importance of staying 6 feet away from others (98%).
    • Nearly 9 out of 10 are very aware about the importance of staying closer to home when possible (85%).
    • Slightly fewer, but still a majority of parents, are very aware of the recommendations to wear a cloth face covering if passing within 20 feet of others when breathing hard (72%).

We asked if sugary drink consumption changed during the pandemic because we know that too many Alaskans drink more sugary drinks than is healthy. Drinking sugary beverages can increase people’s chances of developing cavities, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

  • About 3 out of 4 parents (74%) said the amount of sugary drinks they serve their child is no different than before the pandemic. Sugary drinks include soda, sports and energy drinks, as well as fruit-flavored and powdered drinks. About 10% of parents said they served more sugary drinks during the pandemic, and 16% reported serving fewer sugary drinks during the pandemic. 
    • According to pre-pandemic surveys, nearly 1 out of 3 Alaska 3-year-olds has a sugary drink every day. That increases to about 1 out of 2 Alaska high school students having a sugary drink every day. Water and plain milk are the healthiest drink options. 

Families needing help during the pandemic can call 2-1-1, visit Help Me Grow Alaska or continue following Alaska’s Play Every Day campaign for updated guidance. Visit the Office of Children’s Services Child Safety and Well-Being During COVID-19 website for information for youth, families and community members. Resources specifically for parents and caregivers of children with special health care needs are available on the Division of Public Health’s Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs website. Parents feeling overwhelmed can call the Alaska Careline at 877-266-4357, text TalkWithUs to 66746 or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline​.


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April 23
Appreciate the joy of daily physical activity right now: Play Every Day shows how that’s done in a new video

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​APRIL 23, 2020 – It’s a challenging time right now.

You can’t attend classes at school.

You can’t give your friends a high-five in the hallway.

And you can’t travel as far as you used to go.

But you can still get out and play. Daily physical activity can make a big difference in how you feel right now. It improves your mood and eases your stress. Just one session of activity​ can help you feel less anxious and improve your sleep that night. One session can also lower your blood pressure and improve your body’s ability to keep blood sugars level.

Play Every Day has been updating its blog about the safe ways to be physically active while keeping physical distance from others. Now, it’s sharing that message through a short video that you can find online on Play Every Day's YouTube channel

The video highlights all the ways you can still be active: 

  • You can do indoor and outdoor activities as a family.
  • You can have a great time doing simple things. Puddle-jumping is free, and chasing bubbles is fun.
  • You can hike, bike, walk and run — just remember to stay at least 6 feet away from others. Wear a face covering when you’re breathing hard while active and you may pass within 20 feet from others.

So get out and go play.

And do it every day.

Please share this video​ with others who could use a little inspiration to stay active today.

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April 09
More updates for safe physical activity: Wear a face covering outside when you are exerting yourself and passing by others

Zink Mask Resized.jpgAPRIL 9, 2020 — Communities across Alaska continue to follow hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines that have changed how we should be physically active to prevent the spread of coronavirus, also called COVID-19. 

“Alaska is beautiful, and being outside can be a good way to be able to take care of your physical and mental health — but it’s important that you do it safely,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. 

We talked with Zink to update our ongoing list of Questions and Answers for safe ways to get out and play right now. Her answers address wearing face coverings outside of your home and choosing the safest places to be active —​ the closer to home, the better. We’ve added her guidance to that previously shared by Louisa Castrodale, epidemiologist with Alaska’s Division of Public Health. It’s important to stay up to date with your community’s guidelines. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is also updating its coronavirus information daily at coronavirus.alaska.gov.

Should you always wear a face covering when you are physically active outdoors? 

That depends on your surroundings, your activity, who you are with, and how closely you might pass by others. When you are being active outside, you are less likely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus when there’s good air movement around you and when you are not touching surfaces, like playground equipment, Zink said. 

Particles that we breathe or cough out can pass farther when we’re singing, running or doing other activities that require exerting ourselves, Zink said. That makes wearing face coverings particularly important when you are breathing harder and may pass by others while being active or come within 20 feet of others.

Cover your nose and mouth with a face covering when you are being active outside in a way that makes you breathe harder and in a place that you’ll likely pass people or come within 20 feet of others who are not members of your household. That could be strenuous hiking, running or biking. Remember to always keep distance between you and people who are not members of your household, even if you’re wearing a face covering. 

You do not need to wear a face covering when you are doing an activity outside by yourself or only with family members, and you are not passing by others.

Who is the face covering protecting when you are wearing it? You, others or both?

“The reason you mask up — it’s not to protect you from others you are passing, it’s to protect others from you,” Zink said. 

“I put my face covering up, I protect you. You put your face covering up, you protect me.”

The types of face coverings we are wearing outside right now are primarily worn to catch our own respiratory droplets and prevent them from spreading to others, Zink said. These homemade face coverings or buffs typically aren’t made with material that’s tightly-woven enough to protect you from very small droplets that others could be breathing or coughing out. That’s why the combination of wearing a face covering when exerting yourself plus maintaining a wide distance from others is so important, Zink said. 

What kind of face covering should you wear, and does the type of material matter?

The material does matter, Zink said. The thicker the material, the better.

“If you can hold it up and see light through it, it’s not going to be OK,” Zink said. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this webpage about face coverings​ and several ways to make them.

Zink recommended using a covering that has a double layer of fabric, perhaps quilting fabric with a thicker weave. If you are an active runner, Zink encouraged making sure your face covering is thick, but also comfortable enough to breathe through the entire time. 

Zink cautioned people not to use vacuum cleaner bags or industrial filters in their homemade coverings because those can have fine particles that you could inhale and cause lung damage.

What is the safest way to take off your face covering when you finish your activity?

Zink gave these steps for people wearing face coverings that hook over their ears: Wash your hands before removing the face covering. Remove the covering by touching only the ear loops, not the front of the covering or your face. Pull the face covering away from your face, and don’t have it touch your eyes as you remove it. If it’s a cloth covering, immediately put it in the washing machine and wash in hot water. If you don’t have a washing machine, you can wash the face covering in hot water and soap. 

“The virus dies with heat and soap,” Zink said. “It does not die with cold.”

Then wash your hands again. Good handwashing is important, both before and after taking off your face covering, Zink said.

If you are wearing a buff, remove it by pulling it forward away from your face, close your eyes and pull it up over your head. Wash your face and hands immediately afterward. Wash the buff like you would wash the cloth face covering above. Then wash your hands again.

Are you allowed to be physically active at a park or on the trails, or do you have to stay on your own property?

Alaska’s guidance allows you to use local parks and trails, so long as you stay at least 6 feet away from others, Zink said. You do not need to stay on your own property. She said people should continue to follow their local guidelines, too, as they could include other restrictions. Also follow the guidance about wearing face coverings while you're active outside.

Are you required to stay in your own community to be physically active?

Guidance is changing as scientists and health providers learn more about COVID-19.  At this time, the state guidance encourages Alaskans to recreate in open spaces and on trails that are near their homes and to comply with guidelines about social distancing and wearing face coverings. 

“Be respectful of the places you are going,” Zink said. Don’t drive outside your community and fill up your gas tank there or stop along the way for food. Avoid touching things in other communities, like toilets and playground equipment. Don’t linger at trailheads where other people may be. Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer when that’s not possible.

Right now, Alaska’s guidelines continue to allow outdoor recreation at a distance from others because there are health benefits that come with safe activity. Zink stressed the importance of choosing activities that limit falling and getting hurt.

Please keep reading below to see previous Questions and Answers about safe physical activity in Alaska.

Should families avoid play dates in communities with hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines?

Communities across Alaska have guidelines in place that state people should not invite friends or family members to their homes for a visit. 

“What that means is families should avoid indoor play dates in communities with hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines,” Castrodale said.

“We recognize this is really hard for kids who feel isolated and can be stressful, but it’s needed for the time being to limit the potential spreading of illness.”

Families should prioritize playing outside with their family members and staying at least 6 feet away from people who are not members of their household. This may be difficult for families with little children who are too young to understand how to maintain a safe distance from others, Castrodale said.

If you play in the same areas as other families, choose wide open places and activities that are easier to do with distance – like hiking and biking. She also said to avoid activities that involve direct contact with non-family members, like football or tag.

“Contact sports are best to avoid right now,” she said.

Castrodale recognized that it’s important for kids to stay connected with friends to reduce the feeling of isolation, but stressed that kids will need to maintain that connection virtually right now. She recommended apps like FaceTime or Skype or other online options for staying in touch with friends.

Should children avoid outdoor playgrounds? 

Yes. Picking physical activities other than the playground right now is the best option. Playgrounds are a place where children will want to interact and it will be difficult to have them remain far enough away from each other. It is also a place where parents could find themselves accidently gathering too closely with others. Please keep checking local guidance.

Should children limit playing or socializing with grandparents or other adults over age 60? 

Castrodale said it’s wonderful to support children’s relationships with grandparents and older adults, but physical interaction between them right now should be limited or avoided. People 60 and older and those with ongoing health concerns, like heart disease and diabetes, face the highest chances for serious health problems related to coronavirus.

“Part of this idea of social distancing is to protect our most vulnerable folks,” Castrodale said.

So while it’s sad to limit face-to-face interactions with older loved ones, that might be the best thing for their health right now. Instead, use apps like FaceTime or Skype to keep your children and grandparents in contact.

“Right now, the best way to love grandma is to send her a nice note, rather than to see her in person,” Castrodale said.

What can your family do to prevent the spread of illness? 

Kids and parents should do several things to prevent getting and spreading illness:

  • Wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song from start to finish twice. If water is not available, use a hand sanitizer that’s made with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover their own mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, either through coughing into their elbows or ideally using a tissue. Then, immediately throw the tissue away and wash their hands.
  • Avoid touching their faces, especially with unwashed hands. That includes rubbing eyes or touching noses or mouths. 
  • Don’t share cups, water bottles, utensils or food.
  • Parents can frequently clean and disinfect surfaces that kids touch a lot, like doorknobs and toys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting homes with suspected or confirmed coronavirus infections. This webpage includes a section for routine cleaning of households that states families can use household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants on frequently touched surfaces. 
  • Children and adults should stay home when they have a fever (100.4°F or higher), are coughing or are short of breath. These are some of the symptoms of coronavirus, also called COVID-19. Families also should follow guidelines about limiting contact with others who have recently traveled outside Alaska. These are found under "COVID-19 Health Alerts and Mandates" on coronavirus.alaska.gov.

What should you do if your child becomes sick?

Castrodale said the most important thing to remember is to keep sick children inside the home and away from others, including siblings.

“Anyone who is sick needs to be isolated,” she said. Of course, a parent will need to provide care for that child, but siblings and others should be separated as much as possible. If parents believe the child needs medical care, they should call their provider before going in to the clinic, she said.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is updating its coronavirus information every day. Please stay informed by visiting coronavirus.alaska.gov.

Photograph of Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's Chief Medical Officer, wearing a face covering while being active outdoors.


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