Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, stands outside a restaurant on May 6 in Palmer, her home city. In an interview, she reflected on two years of COVID-19. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
When Anne Zink began working as the state’s chief medical officer in the summer of 2019, she had a vision of transforming the state’s health system into one that promotes health holistically rather than one that simply responds to sickness.
Then came COVID-19. At least a third of Alaskans have tested positive for the COVID virus as of early May, according to the state’s data hub, while more than 3,700 have been hospitalized and more than 1,200 have died.
Now, two years after the pandemic overtook her work and her life, rates of cases, hospitalizations and death are down and the crisis has seemingly ebbed.
That means Zink can start turning her attention back to the reformist public-health vision she had when she started her job, emphasizing wellness and safety.
“We really need to not just provide care for the sick, but we need to find ways to be healthy and well,” she said in an interview at a downtown Palmer restaurant.
But it does not mean that COVID-19 is over, Zink said. “COVID’s not going anywhere. It’s going to be with us as long as anyone is here,” she said.
Whether the pandemic has ended is up to epidemiologists worldwide and not to her, she said. Nor is she prepared to declare that the disease has become endemic, meaning a regular presence but no longer spreading exponentially among the population at large.
“I almost bristle at the term endemic. I guess people like it because it has the word ‘end’ in it. But as a health care provider, endemics kill people all the time,” she said, ticking off influenza, measles and Ebola as examples.
Unexpected fame – and infamy
Zink’s work as the state’s top doctor during the world’s worst pandemic in a century turned the charismatic emergency room doctor into a celebrity.
That was not what she expected when she took the job in 2019. “I never expected anyone to know my name. That still catches me off guard regularly,” she said.
Zink has been feted by many, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, which gave her a special award in late 2020 for her “steadfast leadership” during the pandemic. She has been hosted at the White House, widely profiled in the media and, for part of 2020, was the subject of a Facebook fan club.
She has also been vilified. Among her critics is highly conservative state Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Christopher Kurka. His campaign website emphasizes his opposition to COVID-19 policies that he calls “unconscionable for a free people” and features a “Fire Anne Zink” tab and petition.
Though she has received a couple of death threats, which she reported to public safety officials, she was never subject to scary situations like those endured by other health officials nationwide who have had gun-brandishing critics show up at their homes, their homes vandalized or their children targeted.
She was accustomed to hostility from her work in emergency rooms, she said, where she treated agitated patients who were sometimes suicidal or homicidal and where she once, in the middle of a rotation, got a black eye.
“When people are sick or scared or tired, they don’t always make their best choices,” she said.
Outdoors promotions line up with holistic health vision
In one way, the Alaska response to the pandemic was different from responses in other parts of the nation and the world – and the response reflected Zink’s passion for wellness and holistic health.
The state deliberately avoided the term “lockdown,” she said. The Department of Health and Social Service repeatedly promoted outdoor exercise, even during the worst of the pandemic. That contrasted with a national and international stay-at-home narrative, with beaches and parks closed in many regions.
From the start, the department frequently invoked its 10-year-old Play Every Day campaign, which encourages kids to be physically active for at least an hour a day, even if that meant wearing a mask or keeping 20 feet of distance between people.
“Kids should plan for an awesome, active summer outdoors,” proclaimed one press release from last year.
The outdoor-exercise promotions extended to adults. Zink, who grew up in Colorado and now lives near Palmer’s Lazy Mountain and its trail system, has used her own outdoor activities as material for social media posts that encouraged others to get outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are known for their antiviral qualities, she said, so Alaskans were urged to take advantage of their natural setting.
Alaskans were receptive to the idea, she said, pointing to skyrocketing use of state parks and other indicators.
With COVID now a permanent presence, the COVID work of Zink and her colleagues is also permanent. That includes investigating the sometimes-serious lingering effects to lungs, hearts and other parts of the body that some COVID patients suffer. “As a clinician, I will always care about COVID,” she said.
But as a public health official, she said, her job is to think beyond COVID about the whole state and the much broader health of all Alaskans.
That brings her back to her original vision for the job that she took in 2019.
It means, among other things, ensuring access to clean water, functioning sanitation systems, healthy food and safe spaces to exercise and move around, she said. Eighty percent of overall health depends on factors outside of medical care, she said, and overall health is needed for resilience to whatever crisis comes next.
“Being physically and mentally well as a community and as a state is going to be how we are best prepared for any challenge,” she said.
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