Alaska capped off a week of major COVID-19 case increases with its highest daily tally yet on Saturday, at 355 new cases.
That’s by far the highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported in a single day since the pandemic began here in March, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. The previous high was 249 cases reported by the state on Oct. 11.
There were no new deaths reported Saturday. The state’s per capita death rate remains among the lowest in the country. In total, 68 Alaskans have died with COVID-19.
Saturday marks the 31st consecutive day that the daily case count has been in the triple digits.
And Sunday’s virus numbers are likely to be even higher, the state health department said in a statement Saturday evening.
A wake-up call
The large increase is due at least in part to the state catching up on data entry, said Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department.
But, she said, the high number is also a wake-up call.
“We have a lot of virus out there, and the virus is very persistent,” Johnston said.
Certainly, Alaska has been lucky. There are better treatments for the virus available now compared with March. And the bulk of Alaska’s cases have been among young people, who are less likely to require hospitalization.
But Johnston said she’s getting worried that as the numbers spike and more people test positive, there will be more older people and others with underlying conditions who may get sick.
“And I do worry that we’re going to see a lot more hospitalizations and we’re going to see more deaths,” Johnston said.
Statewide as of Saturday, 58 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. On Friday, 59 people were hospitalized with the illness, a record for the state. Hospitalizations are what’s known as a “lagging indicator,” meaning people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 may have tested positive weeks earlier.
“Alaskans aren’t that different from everyone else,” Johnston said. “People with certain underlying conditions and older people are more vulnerable, and some percentage of them are going to need hospital care.”
The state’s testing positivity rate as of Saturday was 5.25% over a seven-day rolling average. Health officials say that a positivity rate above 5% can indicate that the state is not conducting enough testing.
How it spreads, and what it takes to reel things in
The spread of COVID-19 in Anchorage is much less about location and much more about behavior, Johnston said. The coronavirus is a respiratory virus, meaning it spreads among people who are near one another. Two people close together, not wearing masks, would be in a danger zone.
Aside from spread in communal living settings like nursing homes, the spread of the illness really comes down to how people interact, she said. They frequently see cases associated with break rooms, where people take off their masks to eat and drink.
“I just can’t stress enough — if we could just get everybody to wear a mask, every time they’re out of their house or when they have people over who aren’t from their household, that would just make a tremendous difference,” Johnston said.
The state’s reproductive number — or the average number of people who those with COVID-19 infect — is hovering around 1.1, Johnston said. That means cases will keep increasing quickly. But if the number dips below 1.0, fewer people will become infected overall, which makes slowing the spread of the virus more possible.
“We could bring it down,” she said.
Health officials continue to strongly urge people to stay at least 6 feet from others who aren’t members of their household, wear masks around people they do not live with and regularly wash their hands, in addition to sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.
“Our current situation will not last forever," Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a statement Saturday. "There is much to be hopeful about with more treatment options and vaccines on the horizon, but now is the time for all of us to take all the steps we can as individuals and as communities to help slow the spread.”
Cases permeate the state
Saturday concluded a week in which cases continued to ramp up, especially in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities. By the end of the day Friday, 186 residents in the village of Chevak — a community of a little more than 1,000 — had tested positive, according to tribal health officials. From Tuesday through Friday, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. reported a total of 293 new cases across the region, a sharp increase from its previous daily tallies in the single digits and teens.
Tribal health officials described an “alarming surge in COVID-19 cases in multiple communities” and said that “without immediate broad behavior change by the public, cases of this highly contagious virus will continue to climb.” (On Saturday, YKHC reported just nine new virus cases in the Y-K Delta.)
It wasn’t clear how many of new cases reported by the state health department Saturday involved people who were showing symptoms when they tested positive. While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the Department of Health and Social Services represents only one person.
Of the 353 new resident cases reported by the state Saturday, there were 165 in Anchorage, plus 18 in Eagle River and two in Chugiak; 16 in Wasilla; 13 in Palmer; two in Houston; two in Big Lake; one in Willow; nine in Kenai; four in Homer; two in Soldotna; one in Nikiski; one in Seward; one in Sterling; one in Valdez; one in Healy; 21 in Fairbanks; five in North Pole; five in Juneau; one in Douglas; one in Haines; one in Skagway; five in Bethel; 42 in Chevak; and one in Hooper Bay.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 not identified to protect confidentiality, there were 21 resident cases in the Bethel Census Area; four in the Northwest Arctic Borough; two in the Kusilvak Census Area; one in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; one in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; one in the Nome Census Area; one in the North Slope Borough; and one in the Aleutians East Borough.
Additionally, two nonresidents in Juneau tested positive for COVID-19.
Tips from state health officials
It could be days before a contact tracer reaches out to an individual who tests positive, state health officials say. In the meantime, they’re requesting people reach out to their own close contacts.
Here’s what the state health department says people can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
• Isolate yourself if you feel any cold-like symptoms and get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible. If you or your family need food, housing or other non-medical assistance, please contact Alaska 2-1-1 (dial 211 or 800-478-2221) or your local emergency operations center for help.
• Avoid crowded places and gatherings; keep social circles very small.
• Stay at least 6 feet away from people outside of your household.
• Always have a mask on when you are around people outside of your household – even if you can maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
• Wash your hands often and disinfect commonly touched surfaces and objects.
• If you test positive for COVID-19, notify all of your close contacts immediately; you can use the tracking sheet on the back of this flyer to help.
• Please answer the call if a public health contact tracer calls you and follow their guidance.