As Alaska slowly reopens its economy and eases restrictions, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink suggested that some Alaskans can expand their social circle. 

In Phase 2 of the state’s Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan, gatherings of fewer than 50 people are allowed as long as non-household members remain 6 feet apart. But according to a press release issued on Friday by the Department of Health and Social Services, some can begin socializing with individuals outside their household without maintaining social distancing.

Zink said the appropriate level of social interactions may vary from household to household and will depend on the risk factors of everyone living in them. Applying a concept called “an expanded social bubble,” Zink said a household may choose to expand slightly to link with one other individual, couple or household.

“This is something that other countries and communities are trying out, as a way of providing added social support while continuing to limit most social interactions,” Zink said.

Once linked, the individuals within an expanded social bubble can visit each other’s homes, share meals, care for one another, help with home projects or go on recreational outings together. Children within that enlarged bubble may play with each other in close proximity, indoors or outdoors. 

Outside that trusted bubble, all household members still must keep at least 6 feet apart from non-household members. Once a household has expanded its bubble to include others, the members within that bubble need to remain consistent.

“Consistency is key,” Zink said. “Expanding your bubble, even to include just one or two others, is not something to be done lightly. Alaskans have done a tremendous job since late March preventing the spread of COVID-19 by limiting their social interactions. That needs to continue, but we recognize that if people have more social support, limiting other social interactions will be easier to maintain as COVID-19 continues to be of concern in our communities.”

Mike Abbott, chief executive officer with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said he expects this model could prove beneficial to the mental health of Alaskans.

“Alaskans are showing considerable resilience under extremely difficult circumstances, but this adjustment, done correctly, could represent a great way to relieve stress and anxiety for Alaskans who have been feeling alone or isolated,” Abbott said. “It provides Alaskans with options to help build a stronger network of support.”

If Alaskans choose to expand their social bubble, they will need to first consider their risk for serious illness from COVID-19. Those most at risk, such as those 65 or older or people with an ongoing health condition, will need to be the most restrictive, keeping their bubbles as tight as possible to prevent spreading infection into the group.

Zink said that with larger groups, the risk for individuals increases.

“The data we have from numerous households is that about 80% of household contacts do get the disease if one person gets it, so if you share that bubble, you share that risk,” she said. “But it can be a good way to be able to sustain long-term ways we can support each other.”

If one person in the group becomes sick, that person will need to be isolated from the remainder of the household and everyone else who is not ill will need to remain quarantined, assuming close contacts occurred with the sick individual.  

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that adhering to the social bubble recommendations will be up to individual Alaskans. 

“We have gotten some pretty good results as a result of Alaskans individually and collectively working together to try to minimize the spread, so we will continue to rely on that,” Dunleavy said. 

While the 6-foot social distancing requirement is part of Alaska’s health mandates, Zink said “the 6-foot rule is just a guideline, just education for individuals.”

Dunleavy said on Monday that he believes Alaska is ready to enter the third phase of the reopening plan.

“We’re not rushing things. We’re looking at the numbers,” he said. “The numbers don’t justify us continuing anything but opening up.”

Three new COVID-19 cases were announced on Monday, bringing the state total to 399. Of those, 345 have recovered. 

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