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Alaska’s model shows dropping COVID-19 counts in coming days even as hospitalizations hit new high

State health officials are forecasting a drop in coronavirus cases after several months of rising counts culminated in a surge in COVID-19 infections last month.

That’s according to Alaska’s public health models that predict future trends, though they can be highly variable.

Starting in June, the state was experiencing rising numbers of new infections including large outbreaks in seafood processing facilities that brought concerns about health care capacity, especially in Anchorage.

The models now show declining numbers going forward.

“Recently we’ve been fortunate that our cases have started to trend downward,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said at a media briefing Thursday.

A weekly state COVID-19 forecast released this week showed cases declining by half about every 38 days, a reversal from last week where rising cases were expected to double every three weeks.

Part of the change can be attributed to fewer Anchorage cases, as well as a drop in large outbreaks, state health officials say.

But the state’s disease picture will continue to fluctuate, they say, and future trends hinge on how Alaskans behave when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing, especially in indoor spaces.

“Our fate with COVID is not fixed,” Zink said. “It’s not really fixed in time. It’s just a reflection of what’s been happening.”

The modeling and the state’s daily case counts are separate, though related.

State health officials on Thursday reported a new high in the number of Alaskans sick enough to need hospitalization, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard.

That number rose from 31 on Wednesday to 39 on Thursday — the highest reported number since the pandemic began in March — with another seven hospitalized patients under investigation for the virus. A total of 166 Alaskans since March have gotten ill enough with the disease to be hospitalized.

The state on Thursday reported another 95 new coronavirus infections around the state and no new deaths. Twenty-seven Alaskans have died with the virus. The state’s death rate remains second lowest in the nation.

State officials say the short-term models can help monitor how health mandates are succeeding.

In Anchorage, the municipality reinstated capacity limits on gatherings and some businesses effective July 24, and stricter measures that — among other actions — prohibit indoor service at restaurants and bars took effect Aug. 3. Health officials this week said such measures appear to have helped slow rising case counts.

The state’s daily counts show a general decrease following peaks on July 25, July 31 and Aug. 1, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. Anchorage, which tends to drive statewide case trends, is also seeing lower case numbers, McLaughlin said during the briefing.

“This is a real positive sign that things are improving right now in Anchorage and may well be an indication that the mandates that are in place in Anchorage are working, so that’s really encouraging,” he said.

There are still ongoing and potentially troubling outbreaks, however.

The Anchorage Pioneer Home as of Thursday was reporting a dozen cases of COVID-19 in 10 elders and two staff members. The facility just finished a second round of testing among its 145 staff and 141 residents, health officials said Thursday, calling the outbreak “concerning” because of vulnerability of the population. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the people who tested positive were showing symptoms. Residents in neighborhoods experiencing infections will be tested every three days and other staff and residents every week, officials say.

Nineteen employees of the Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine in Southeast Alaska near Juneau have also tested positive with more results pending.

And the state is still seeing “a lot of little cases in a lot of communities,” Zink said.

Of the 95 new cases reported by the state on Thursday, 82 involved residents. Thirty involved Municipality of Anchorage residents, including one each in Chugiak and Eagle River. Thirteen new nonresident cases were reported, 10 involving Kodiak Island Borough seafood industry workers, two other seafood workers and a mine worker with locations under investigation.

The state also reported two new cases in Kenai, one in Soldotna and one in Sterling; four in the Kodiak Island Borough; 12 in Fairbanks and three in North Pole; one in a smaller Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area community; one in Palmer, six in Wasilla and one in Willow; five in Nome; one in a smaller community in the North Slope Borough; two in smaller communities in the Northwest Arctic Borough; six in Juneau; one in Ketchikan and one in a smaller community in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough; one in Petersburg; two in smaller communities in the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area; and one in a smaller community in the Bristol Bay and Lakes and Peninsula boroughs.

Of the 82 Alaska residents, 50 are male and 32 are female, according to state health data. Seven are under the age of 10; four are between 10 and 19; 16 are in their 20s; 13 are in their 30s; 17 are in their 40s; 11 are in their 50s; 10 are in their 60s; and four are in their 70s.

Of the 4,750 total COVID-19 cases reported in Alaska since March, 3,363 people are still considered infectious, according to the state health data.

A total of 294,053 tests have been conducted. The average percentage of daily positive tests for the previous seven days is 2.73%.

The seven-day test positivity rate, which measures whether a community is doing enough testing and can indicate local increases, varied from 1.59% in Fairbanks to 3.04% in Anchorage, 3.33% in Mat-Su, and 4.97% in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, according to Thursday’s dashboard.

Reporter Morgan Krakow contributed to this story.

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