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As Alaska’s daily COVID-19 count hits another near-record, hospitalizations aren’t rising as quickly

A health care worker uses an umbrella as they talk with people waiting in line at the Lake Otis Parkway COVID-19 testing site on Wednesday in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Alaska on Thursday reported yet another near-record daily increase in coronavirus cases.

But at least for now, hospitalizations and deaths aren’t rising as dramatically as the daily counts.

That may be because younger people make up the majority of new positive test results for COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the virus, state officials say.

Most of the new cases in the past few weeks are in people in their 20s, 30s and 40s — in that order, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. People at the highest risk for hospitalizations and death, however, are older with underlying medical conditions.

“That may be why we haven’t seen big hospitalization increases with our dramatic increases in case counts that have occurred over the last several weeks,” McLaughlin said during a media briefing Thursday.

Still, health officials say, they’re watching the numbers closely: Other states with spikes in cases among younger people have experienced a subsequent uptick in cases involving older residents more likely to be hospitalized.

That’s why they continue to urge Alaskans to wear face coverings in public places where social distancing isn’t possible, limit their exposure to people outside their households, and practice good hygiene and hand-washing protocols.

The state’s high daily counts continued Thursday, when the state reported 46 Alaskans and three nonresidents newly testing positive.

It wasn’t clear how many of the new cases involved people showing symptoms.

Generally, 60% to 70% of Alaska’s more recent positive tests involved people with symptoms, according to state epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale. Early in the pandemic in March, nearly all of them were symptomatic because tests were only being performed on people with specific symptoms.

Now, required testing for travelers, seafood workers and patients scheduled to undergo medical or dental procedures means far more people are turning up positive without feeling sick, officials say. They can still pass the virus to others.

The state has conducted a total of 135,744 tests, some of them more than once on the same person. The average percentage of daily positive tests for the previous three days is 1.24%.

“We are now the fifth most tested state in the country,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said at Thursday’s briefing.

One new hospitalization was reported Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic began in March to 80 people ill enough to require significant medical care, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. No new deaths were reported Thursday. Seventeen Alaskans have died with the virus.

There were 19 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Anchorage as of Thursday, according to a municipal COVID-19 dashboard. The state’s hospitalized patients were in the single digits on average until July 3.

The state set new daily case records on July 2 with a total of 50 — 39 residents, 11 nonresidents — and then 60 the next day, involving 46 residents and 14 nonresidents. Another 55 total cases were reported July 4.

State officials say it’s possible the numbers could rise again after last weekend’s holiday gatherings.

Of the new resident cases reported Thursday, 21 were in Anchorage and one was in Eagle River, according to state health data. Another seven involved Kenai Peninsula residents: two in Kenai and Soldotna, one each in Homer, Seward and Sterling.

Six new cases were reported in Mat-Su: four in Wasilla and two in Palmer. Single new cases were reported among residents of Petersburg, Nome and Bethel.

Seven new cases were reported among Fairbanks residents and one in North Pole.

One of the new Fairbanks cases is an inmate at Fairbanks Correctional Center who was tested upon arrival at the facility.

Another is a Fairbanks North Star Borough employee. A second borough employee also tested positive Thursday, but that case wasn’t counted in the state data.

The new cases prompted Borough Mayor Bryce Ward to order the immediate closure of the Juanita Helms Administration Center on Thursday afternoon until Monday so the building that houses most borough government can be sanitized by a cleaning contractor.

The first employee to test positive is experiencing symptoms of the virus, according to borough spokeswoman Lanien Livingston. The borough was notified about their positive test Wednesday evening. Their department was operating at full staff within a COVID-19 mitigation plan that calls for social distancing, masks and frequent cleaning of high-contact areas, Livingston said.

State public health workers and borough risk managers are conducting contact tracing to find out how many people may have been exposed.

The second employee to test positive works in a “different duty section” from the first, officials say.

The City of Seward on Thursday also reported three new positive COVID-19 results. That brings the total there to almost 50 after an outbreak that began in late June when local cases remained in the single digits.

Of the three new nonresident cases reported by the state Thursday, one involved a seafood industry worker in Kodiak. The other two were labeled as “unknown” in state data.

There have been no reports of community spread linked to seafood industry workers, Zink said Wednesday.

There were a total of four new cases in seafood industry workers in the Bristol Bay Borough between Monday and Wednesday, according to an update from the Camai Community Health Center. All have been in quarantine since arriving and are now in isolation. The center’s executive director and CEO, Mary Swain, wrote in the update that all four had negative results before testing positive, “so we are confident we are catching positive cases early.”

This week marks the last of extensive processor testing, Swain said.

“As the fishing season winds down, in the next couple weeks, we cannot let our guard down, we must stay vigilant so we can keep our elders and those with underlying medical conditions safe,” she said.

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