Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Alaska and Utah have boasted low death rates that public health officials attribute to a range of factors including the average age of residents, geography, and size of population.
According to coronavirus trackers, both Republican-led states are in the bottom six out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., of coronavirus-related deaths per capita.
Infectious disease expert Jyotsna Shah, President of IGeneX, Inc., a COVID testing lab, says Alaska and Utah’s "small, spread out population" have made it "difficult for the coronavirus to spread from person to person at a rapid rate, unlike a densely populated area such as New York City."
Last year, the Salt Lake County Health Department shared some of the contributing factors to Utah’s low mortality rate with CBS-affiliate KUTV: 1.) A youthful population. 2.) Overall health of the state’s population. 3.) Easily accessible healthcare. 4.) High testing capabilities.
With an average age of 31.5, Utah’s population is younger than the rest of the nation, which medical experts say is a driving factor behind the state’s low death toll. According to state officials, Utah has the lowest number of people who are 65 and older in the country. Because coronavirus has had a harsher impact on older people, Utah’s younger population has been able to recover from the virus with fewer deaths.
According to America’s Health Rankings report, Utah is one of the healthiest states in the nation. The report notes that the healthiest states have relatively low incidences of smoking, alcohol consumption, and higher rates of physical activity.
The Salt Lake County Health Department also pointed out that overall Utahns have good access to healthcare. While there are areas of the state that struggle with access to health providers, the state’s large health care systems service large swaths of the state’s population.
In order to curb the spread of the virus, Utah health officials said testing has been key. According to a seroprevalence study conducted by the University of Utah Health, Utah’s testing identified more cases when compared to other places. The more cases identified, the easier it was to contain those with the virus by convincing people to remain at home so they wouldn’t inadvertently spread the disease to someone who may be more vulnerable.
In Alaska, local doctors told Alaska Public Media that the death toll has been low because the state has the lowest population density in the country (about 1.26 people per square mile) and its geography is more spread out.
Public health officials also say the state’s decision to limit travel early helped prevent the spread of the virus, which in turn helped shield the more vulnerable population from getting sick.
Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin told the outlet that early travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and other mitigation measures, afforded Alaska’s public health officials enough time to get the virus under control before it spread too far.
"We were quite early and aggressive with our shutdown in Alaska," he said. "And that resulted in the epidemic sort of hitting Alaska later than it did in many other states."
While Alaskans were asked to limit their social interactions, he said the state had time to learn about the disease and how to treat it, all while protecting those who were most at risk for serious illness.
Shah said Alaska did a "phenomenal job of controlling who comes in and out of their state," which helped keep the death toll low. Alaska was one of the few states that required a negative coronavirus test to enter the state.
"Not only has Alaska released regulations on vacationers looking to see the beauty of the state, they have also put standard regulations into practice for commercial fishing vessels to protect their communities," Shah said. "This has made a big difference for them in controlling the spread of COVID-19 within the state to residents. Fast and accurate testing determines the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thus being critical to resident safety in remote areas such as Alaska."
Alaska was also the first state in the country to make coronavirus vaccinations available to anyone over the age of 16, which has helped keep the death toll low.
At the beginning of the year, Alaska was No. 1 among states for per-capita coronavirus vaccinations. It has since slipped lower. Despite the speedy vaccination process, less than half of the state’s population is vaccinated. Utah boasts a similar vaccination rate, with less than half of its population fully vaccinated.
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