Updated: October 26, 2020 Published: October 25, 2020
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The record numbers Sunday come after a week of climbing cases representing a major surge statewide, including dramatic increases throughout rural communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. The previous highest daily case increase was Saturday, with 355 COVID-19 cases reported.
Sunday marks the 32nd consecutive day Alaska has had case numbers in the triple digits.
The rise in cases Sunday was due to widespread community transmission, increased testing in many communities and backlogged case data, the health department said in an online statement.
A vast majority of Sunday’s cases were reported in Alaskans younger than 60, said health department commissioner Adam Crum in the statement. Younger people are less likely to die or become severely ill from the virus than older people or those with compromised immune systems.
“The saturation of the virus in the community increases the likelihood that our vulnerable populations such as older Alaskans or others at risk of severe illness will be infected, and these are the groups we are especially trying to protect,” he said.
There were no new deaths reported Sunday. The state’s per capita death rate remains among the lowest in the country. In total, 68 Alaskans have died with COVID-19.
Cases expected to remain in the triple digits for the near future
The significant increase in case numbers throughout the weekend was partly due to a backlog of tests. Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, said that “means that we’ve got even more virus in the community than we realized.”
She said the high case numbers throughout the weekend will likely calm as the backlog decreases, but Johnston expects the state will still be seeing triple-digit cases in the coming weeks.
“I think the 200-range numbers may be here for a while,” she said by phone Sunday.
The state is currently seeing a reproduction rate around 1.1, which Johnston said means that on average, each person is spreading the virus to one or more other people. Decreasing that number, she said, is the key to decreasing the spread.
Johnston said a combination of factors have continued to increase case numbers throughout the last few months. As restrictions loosened, more people were regularly in contact with others, which could then spread COVID-19.
“Early on, people were taking it really seriously and people were scared because they didn’t know what was going on. ... But now it feels a little bit like because we did so well early on, some people aren’t as concerned," she said. "And when you combine that with the change in the weather and more socializing going on inside, I think you know that’s a dangerous combination for us.”
Hospitals remained stable Sunday, but Johnston said there is some concern looking forward that resources may be stretched as infection rates remain high. She also noted that little is known yet about the long-term impact of COVID-19.
Hospitalizations on Sunday remained unchanged from the day before, with 58 Alaskans 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.
On Sunday, 41 of the state’s 131 intensive-care-unit beds were available. The 92 occupied beds included COVID-19 patients as well as people suffering from other illnesses or injuries.
The department said Sunday that hospital capacity remained steady, but noted that the Alaska Airlines Center was still prepared to handle patients if hospitals overflow. The department said the Norton Sound Health Corp. is opening an additional alternative care site as cases have continued to rise.
The state’s testing positivity rate as of Sunday was 6.32% over a seven-day rolling average.
‘This whole holiday season is going to need to be a little bit different’
With Halloween less than a week away, Johnston said she is hoping there won’t be a significant spike in COVID-19 cases afterward.
As temperatures have continued to drop, Johnston said there has been an increase in indoor events. Closed indoor spaces where people from different households are mixing are places that the virus is likely to spread, Johnston said.
She said she’s encouraging people to celebrate outside, to keep distance from others and to wear a mask.
“I’m hoping that we don’t see a lot of indoor parties and that people can figure out a way to do things outdoors or virtually and just realize this whole holiday season is going to need to be a little bit different this year than it has been in previous years,” she said.
With widespread community transmission, much of the burden of slowing the spread of COVID-19 is on individual Alaskans. Johnston said wearing masks is one of the most important ways to slow the spread. She noted that it may be helpful to provide gentle reminders or explain to others how important it is to wear masks because they are so effective at decreasing the risk of transmission.
As case numbers continue to climb, officials from the health department said Sunday that response efforts were being increased in hopes of decreasing the spread.
A team of Public Health Nurses was sent to Bethel over the weekend to help with testing, contact tracing and community education as cases have continued to rise in Western Alaska communities. The department shipped 1,400 pounds of additional personal protective equipment to the area, also.
The federal health department sent 50 rapid testing machines to Alaska for distribution around the state and officials say the new machines will be used for “emerging case clusters and to protect congregate settings such as homeless shelters, long-term care facilities, correction facilities, schools and workplaces.”
Spread continues across the state
All but three regions of the state are in the high alert zone, meaning there is ongoing widespread community transmission of COVID-19. Statewide on Sunday, there was an average of 31.76 people who have been diagnosed per 100,000 people throughout the last 14 days.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities were among the most affected during the previous few weeks. From Tuesday to Friday, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. reported 293 new cases across the region. The surge in cases brought the community to the highest rate per capita throughout the state during the last two weeks. As of Sunday, there were 99 cases per 100,000 people in the region.
Of the 520 cases reported in Alaska residents Sunday, 193 were in Anchorage, plus two in Chugiak, 13 in Eagle River and one in Girdwood; three were in Homer, 11 in Kenai, one in Seward, 17 in Soldotna and two in Sterling; two were in Kodiak; one was in Valdez; one was in Healy; 65 were in Fairbanks and 10 in North Pole; one in Delta Junction; three were in Tok; two were in Big Lake, three in Houston, 18 in Palmer, 49 in Wasilla and two in Willow; one was in Nome; seven were in Utqiagvik; eight were in Kotzebue; one was in Douglas and 34 in Juneau; one in Ketchikan; three in Sitka; two in Skagway; nine in Bethel; two in Dillingham; 16 in Chevak and one in Hooper Bay.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 not identified to protect confidentiality, there were three in the North Kenai Peninsula Borough and one in South Kenai Peninsula Borough; three in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; two in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; one in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; five in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; one in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; two in the Nome Census Area; one in the Northwest Arctic Borough; one in the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area; one in Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon; 11 in the Bethel Census Area; one in the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula boroughs; one in the Dillingham Census Area; and one in the Kusilvak Census Area.
There were six cases reported in nonresidents Sunday, including one in Kenai, two oil industry workers in Prudhoe Bay and three cases marked as unknown by the state health department.
Guidelines for limiting the spread of the coronavirus
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.
Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.