PALMER — For much of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mat-Su region largely escaped the rising case counts and testing shortfalls despite a lack of mask mandates or any other restrictions.
As of this week, cases in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were doubling every seven to eight days — the state’s fastest growth rate, along with the Kenai Peninsula, according to Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. State data shows that Mat-Su residents have Alaska’s highest test positivity rate for a region on the road system.
There have been 78 COVID-19 cases reported at Mat-Su schools in the last two weeks, according to the Mat-Su Borough School District.
But schools don’t appear to be a source of transmission, health officials say. Instead, students are picking up the virus at home.
Many of the Mat-Su cases are coming from people not wearing masks and getting too close together at work, social gatherings and sporting events, they say.
“The place that we’re seeing the most transmission is at work in lunchrooms and whenever there are small group dinners, social gatherings,” said state public health nurse Rene Dillow, who is based in Wasilla. “It’s our friends and family. Everyone worries about the grocery store but that’s not where it’s passing.”
At more than 106,000 residents, the Mat-Su Borough is the second largest municipality in the state. But it’s likely that the borough’s general lack of population density — in a place the size of West Virginia, most residents are concentrated around the cities of Palmer and Wasilla — helped keep cases down until the recent arrival of winter weather sent people inside to socialize.
Now Mat-Su seems to be mirroring trends happening around rural America. The Dakotas, Wisconsin, Montana and Wyoming are experiencing the country’s highest coronavirus case levels. Alaska is sixth in the nation for the number of weekly new cases per capita.
“Places where people could spread out more bought us more time,” said Elizabeth Ripley, CEO of the Mat-Su Health Foundation. “But unfortunately over time with sufficient community spread, it eventually increases.”
Ripley recently did a public service announcement with Gov. Mike Dunleavy urging residents to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands. She said she has friends now who drive to Anchorage to do their shopping. They feel safer there.
Anchorage and Mat-Su share a common boundary at the Knik River and, to some extent, a workforce. The borough boundary starts about 35 miles north of Anchorage, and historically about a third of adults commute to jobs in the city.
But the two split sharply when it comes to…