Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Chief Medical Officer's Handling Of Coronavirus Inspires Alaskans To #ThinkLikeZink


Alaska's coronavirus case rate is among the lowest in the country. Doctors' groups there say one reason is that the state was quick to adopt strict social distancing measures. They also credit clear messaging by the state's chief medical officer. Nat Herz with Alaska Public Media reports that Dr. Anne Zink is helping residents navigate the pandemic by appearing at news conferences from her yurt.

NAT HERZ, BYLINE: Almost every time Alaska's Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a nightly news conference, he steps aside for a while.


MIKE DUNLEAVY: So with that, I'm going turn it over to Dr. Zink.

ANNE ZINK: Yes. Good afternoon, Alaska. Thanks, governor.

HERZ: Zink is broadcasting from her wood stove-heated yurt in the farming town of Palmer, 40 miles north of Anchorage. It's where she settled years ago with her husband, who is a mountain climbing guide.

ZINK: So we kind of went back and forth, and ultimately, Palmer was kind of as urban as he could live and as rural as I could work. So I thought we'd come for two or three years, and that was over 11 years ago now.

HERZ: Zink is an emergency room doctor who, up through the start of the pandemic, was still pulling weekly shifts at the hospital near her home. In the past two months, she's become one of the most visible figures in the state's pandemic response. She says work starts as early as 4 a.m. and entails countless daily meetings.

ZINK: Twenty, thirty - I mean, sometimes it'll be, like, four booked. And I'll be, like, trying to do one on the computer and one on each phone and then texting answers to something else. I mean, I now have three computers and three phones.

HERZ: Zink has been on the job for less than a year after finishing a sabbatical with her husband and two daughters that took them to places like Croatia and Bhutan. And her family history lends itself to understanding the nature of infectious disease. Her late grandfather Al Bartlett was a renowned physics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder who also happened to be an authority on exponential growth. Here's a recording from one of his lectures.


AL BARTLETT: What I hope to do is - I hope to be able to convince you that the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.

HERZ: So far, Alaska has avoided exponential growth of COVID-19. The state has obvious advantages that make it more feasible to contain the virus' spread. It's thinly populated and easier to control people coming in and out. But Zink has earned special praise and a Facebook fan club for her ability to connect with Alaskans and convince them to follow public health guidelines.

LISA MURKOWSKI: I am a huge fan of Dr. Zink.

HERZ: That's U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose family decorated a Dr. Zink Easter egg this year. Murkowski says Zink projects calm, compassion and a kind of political neutrality.

MURKOWSKI: And as I have watched her throughout this pandemic, I thought, she is exactly the person that we need in this position.

DUNLEAVY: I'm a nonfiction guy, right? You get to me by using data.

HERZ: Gov. Mike Dunleavy says he appreciates how Zink sticks to the data instead of lobbying or arguing.

DUNLEAVY: And she's not using data to get to me. She's just, well, you know, there's several models out there. And here's what some of the models say.

HERZ: As Zink has become a public figure during the pandemic, she says she's kept her grandfather in mind.

ZINK: I have always but particularly in this world of really trying to understand exponential growth and trying to keep our state from getting into a place of exponential growth, I think about him all the time.

HERZ: She says a combination of that family legacy and her personal history as an emergency room doctor have helped her navigate this public health crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Nat Herz in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE SONG, "MERU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.