Alaska is in the middle of an unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases: The current surge far exceeds any other previous increases and has lasted more than three weeks.
Cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus are showing up in every corner of the state — with eight of the state’s 11 regions in a high-alert zone — as Alaska reported one more death and 204 new COVID-19 cases Saturday, according to the Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard.
The surge in cases parallels rising virus case numbers in several parts of the Lower 48. Alaska’s daily reported cases have hit triple digits for 24 straight days.
The death reported Saturday involved a Fairbanks man in his 90s who died recently, according to the state health department. In total, 67 Alaskans with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic began here in March.
Statewide as of Saturday, 50 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 while 18 other hospital patients were awaiting test results, according to state data. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are often referred to as a “lagging indicator,” which means people may show up to the hospital weeks after initially testing positive.
Of the new cases, it wasn’t clear how many patients were showing symptoms of the virus when they tested positive. While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the state health department only represents one person.
The current surge is different from the state’s previous spike in July, state health officials said on a call with reporters Thursday: There are more cases at the moment, but there’s also more testing available — though the state still needs more. Plus, there are more cases all over the state, in several rural communities, compared with the concentrated outbreaks in fish processing plants that took place in July.
“We have much better treatment and understanding of the disease now than we did in July, and so we think that that is playing a role in deaths as well as hospitalizations,” Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said during a Thursday call with reporters.
But the biggest difference between the current spike and the summer surge is that it’s colder, Zink said. More people are indoors and more people are fatigued. Challenges only mount as more people head inside for the season.
“We understand this disease better every day,” Zink said. “And so we really want to encourage Alaskans to be hopeful (and) at the same time being able to be resilient. I think that this fall and winter could be very challenging as cases are increasing.”
But it’s not too late to slow down the current surge in cases, health officials say.
“We know what works with COVID," said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist. "We’ve demonstrated it in Alaska, we’ve demonstrated it in the United States and we’ve demonstrated it in multiple countries across the globe. Mitigation works.”
Rising case tallies, positivity rates and reproductive numbers
Several data points and indicators are the worst they’ve been since the start of the pandemic.
Between Oct. 4 and Oct. 10, Alaska witnessed a continued spike in cases, with 40% more cases than the week before.
The state’s reproductive number, which is the average number of people one single person infects with the virus, saw a “significant increase” recently — up to 1.18 by Oct. 10. A reproductive number over one means the state’s epidemic is growing because each person is spreading the virus to more than one person.
The state’s positivity rate, or the percentage of positive tests out of total tests, continued to climb this week with a 4.94% positivity rate as of Saturday, just slightly lower than the national average of 5.3%.
“While many states have a higher positivity rate than Alaska does, this rise is concerning because the positivity rate is our best measure of whether our testing capacity can keep up with current cases. A rise in positivity rate reflects that testing is not increasing as fast as the current increase in cases,” state health officials wrote in a recent report.
While Alaska has the lowest death rate per capita in the country, Vermont and Wyoming have had fewer total deaths.
State health officials say they have no reason to think that the virus in Alaska is any less severe compared with other places. They say recent studies show that COVID-19 strains in the state are as severe, if not more so, than the strains in other parts of the Western U.S.
“This means that the virus present in many communities in Alaska has the ability to make people of all ages very sick if it is allowed to continue to spread,” state health officials said.
Anchorage cases and high alerts statewide
Over the past week, Anchorage saw a 40% increase in new cases, said Dr. Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, at a Friday briefing. It was the first week that Anchorage averaged above 100 new cases per day, with 102.2 new cases a day on average.
Given estimates that only one in 10 people with COVID-19 are actually identified as being infected, Johnston said it’s possible as many as 8,500 people in Anchorage are infectious with the virus.
Statewide as of Saturday, several regions of the state had tilted into the high alert zone, with more than 10 cases per 100,000 people reported over the last two weeks. The high alert level indicates there is widespread community transmission of the virus and many undetected cases as well as frequent outbreaks, according to the state health department.
Some places, like Anchorage, Northwest Alaska and the Fairbanks North Star Borough, reported triple that threshold, with averages in the low 30s. Other regions, like the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, newly entered the red zone on Saturday, with a little over 10 cases per 100,000.
Only three regions on the state’s alert level map were not in the red zone as of Saturday, including the Southwest region and much of Southeast Alaska outside of the City and Borough of Juneau.
Of the 201 new cases of COVID-19 involving residents, 90 were in Anchorage; three were in Chugiak; 10 were in Eagle River; one was in Girdwood; one was in Homer; one was in Kenai; four were in Soldotna; two were in Sterling; one was in Kodiak; two were in Healy; 15 were in Fairbanks; four were in North Pole; five were in Delta Junction; two were in Tok; five were in Palmer; 15 were in Wasilla; three were in Willow; five were in Utqiagvik; 12 were in Juneau; two were in Ketchikan; three were in Petersburg; one was in Craig; one was in Unalaska; three were in Bethel; and two were in Chevak.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 not identified to protect confidentiality, there was one in the northern Kenai Peninsula; one in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; two in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; one in the Nome Census Area; and three in the Bethel Census Area.
Of the three nonresident cases, two were in Anchorage and one was in Wasilla.
The state’s testing positivity rate as of Saturday was 4.94% over a seven-day rolling average.
[Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the individual who died was from Anchorage. He was a Fairbanks resident.]