Dr. Anne Zink was appointed chief medical officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health, in August 2019. She has been involved in Alaska’s response to the coronavirus since DHSS activated its Emergency Operations Center in late January 2020. Zink quickly became a trusted public figure who offered a model response to the coronavirus and kept Alaskans informed with calm and empathy.
If there’s one emotion or one feeling that has dominated your waking hours since the start of the pandemic, what would you say it is?
Determination more than anything else. A professor once said to me, “Anne, you always have to do what’s right for the patient. Remember that the rest is noise.” That’s been a guiding principle for me professionally and has been a guiding principle throughout the response to this pandemic. I see the Alaska people as the people I serve. I very much believe in the mission of the Department of Health and Social Services, which is the health and well-being of all Alaskans.
You’ve become a very public figure and a celebrity of sorts in the state. What has it been like for you to become such a well-recognized person?
It’s not what I ever intended to do. I came here to really find ways to better serve the public’s health. In the emergency department, I would see patients coming in over and over again where policy had failed the patient. That was really frustrating, and I wanted to help create policy that bettered my patients. That’s why I came to this role.
I still think it catches me off guard when people notice me. Although I have to say, recently I’ve been very excited. I went hiking with my dog this weekend, and she’s beautiful. People kept coming up to me, and I was, like, nervous. But they were really coming up to her because she’s gorgeous. So, I was really excited that people are starting to forget who I am. I just want Alaskans to be healthy and well. That’s why I’m here, and I am fine fading back into the everyday work of public health. I’m looking forward to it, in fact.
Is there a message you want to send people or something you think people should keep in mind regarding coronavirus?
We would all love for it to be over. I don’t think it’s going to be gone for some time. It’s going to be a highly contagious respiratory pathogen that’s with us. But the great thing is we have tools to be able to minimize its impact on us, on our community, and our loved ones. I want to encourage Alaskans to make sure that they are looking at a broad range of resources to get accurate, timely information.
As we move back indoors this fall and winter, I suspect that we will continue to have cases and we will continue to have outbreaks. Unfortunately, we will still see people get sick. But increasingly, this disease is becoming preventable. Vaccines, distancing, and things like masking can make a big difference to minimize the spread of the disease. I would encourage Alaskans to be engaged with the data and science, be engaged with the Division of Public Health, and to stay informed about what’s happening with COVID.
The pandemic has, of course, been bad for Alaska and the world generally. But I think most people can find a positive outcome despite all the darker aspects of the virus. What has been the silver lining for you?
I do think it’s important that we keep thinking about those silver linings. I would like us all to say, this has been hard; this has been devastating; but what have we gained? I think our community partnerships is something that I really value and treasure. I’ve loved being on Zoom with mayors in their boat and healthcare workers in their cabin. It’s really made it much easier to connect with people very rapidly over the state.
I have enjoyed the fact that our data dashboards and things like that really focus to have transparent, accurate information for Alaskans to stay informed about their own health.
I’m hopeful that this will help us all recognize the strengths and weaknesses within our health care system. And the fact that it isn’t economy versus health. It isn’t right versus left. This is against the virus, and we are all in it together. We are all in this storm. The more we collaborate together, the more we work together, and the more that we pull together as Alaskans, the stronger we are. We always have to be searching for that common ground that we have between each other instead of highlighting the differences between each other.