Alaska saw a record number of deaths reported in a single day Tuesday as COVID-19 case numbers continued to rise statewide. The number of patients hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday was also the highest it has been.
There were eight previously unreported deaths among Alaskans with COVID-19 and 531 new cases of the virus Tuesday, the state’s coronavirus data dashboard showed.
Five of the newly reported deaths were recent, according to a statement from the health department Tuesday evening. A Wasilla woman in her 90s, an Anchorage man in his 70s, an Anchorage man in his 80s, an Anchorage woman in her 60s and an Anchorage man in his 60s all recently died with the virus.
The three other deaths were not recent and were identified during a standard death certificate review. These involved a Wasilla woman in her 90s, an Anchorage woman in her 40s and a Kenai man in his 60s.
As of Tuesday, there were 103 people with the virus currently in Alaska hospitals, with 10 COVID-19 patients on ventilators. There were 17 additional people in hospitals who were suspected of having COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.
Alaska’s hospitals remain busy. The number of virus patients entering hospitals is significant and expected to increase, said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, on Tuesday.
The biggest problem facing hospitals at the moment is staffing, Kosin said. He’d heard of one Alaska hospital that had 100 staff in quarantine among its multiple facilities around the state. Kosin also said he had talked with a “midsized” nursing home with 15 staff in quarantine, some with positive test results.
“The pressure is very real at this point," Kosin said. “It’s serious.”
The strain on hospitals comes at a time when multiple other states are reaching their health care limits. That means there just aren’t staff who can come to work in Alaska right now, if the state ends up needing them.
“And all signs at this point are suggesting that we will need it,” Kosin said.
Something needs to change, he said. All evidence suggests that what is being done on the community level to slow spread isn’t working, Kosin said. Whether it’s a mandate or some other way to get Alaskans to follow public health strategies, Kosin said Alaska needs to somehow slow the current acceleration to avoid the worst scenarios.
“Unless we take that more seriously and change that, then our destiny is already written at this point.”
Otherwise, Kosin said, Alaska is “headed toward a crisis.”
Previously, the highest number of deaths reported by the state in a single day was six — a mark reached on Oct. 9 and Sept. 25. On both occasions, DHSS said that several of those deaths had not occurred recently and were identified by the National Center for Health Statistics, or through a death certificate review.
In total, 92 Alaskans with the virus have died since the start of the pandemic, and Alaska’s per capita death rate has remained relatively low.
COVID-19 has been surging in communities around Alaska since late September. Health experts are pleading with Alaskans to take the virus seriously as many of the state’s schools are continuing with remote learning and officials are raising alarms about health care capacity heading into the darkest, coldest months of the year.
For nearly three weeks, Alaska has reported daily case tallies over 300. And all but three days in November so far have included case counts over 400.
Health officials have warned that both hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, meaning that they often follow spikes in cases like the one Alaska’s seeing now. Since March, a total of 504 people with the virus have required hospitalization at some point.
‘An exponential rate’
As of Tuesday, all regions of the state were currently at the highest alert level, meaning widespread community transmission is occurring in communities across Alaska. The rural Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region had the highest average case rate, with 140.9 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day average — about 14 times the state’s high-alert threshold of 10.
“We are seeing increasing cases at an exponential rate,” said Tiffany Zulkosky, vice president of communications with the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. “We’re also seeing older patients, presenting in our care system with more severe infections.”
Ten of the region’s 11 cumulative medical evacuations have occurred in the last month, and six in the last two weeks, Zulkosky said.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, recorded a Facebook video on Tuesday morning directed to the residents of the Y-K Delta, urging them to continue to follow public health guidance.
“There’s more cases (per capita) in your region than many parts of the state, and honestly, than any region in the country,” she said.
She cited challenges unique to the region, which include a lack of running water in some communities and limited health care capacity.
She said the state was continuing to do all it could to provide support to the region, but she stressed that individual actions — like avoiding gatherings, social distancing and wearing a mask in public — will be necessary to slow the spread.
“We’ll get through this winter, but it’s going to take all of us," she said. “Be well, take care, protect your elders and slow the spread of COVID-19.”
‘It feels like when you’re trying to turn something big, it’s never going to turn.’
A little less than half of Tuesday’s cases involved Anchorage-area residents. Continued high case counts there likely have to do with the amount of time people spend indoors, Dr. Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, said in an interview Tuesday. A lot of transmission is happening within households and at gatherings, she said. While people are taking some parts of the pandemic seriously, they are more lax in other realms, like not wearing masks when they have people over.
“Until ... the bulk of people decide that this is something that they really have to take seriously all the time, it’s going to be difficult to get the numbers to come down,” Johnston said.
It is incredibly challenging to stay away from family, Johnston said, but short of staying home all the time, there are ways to stay safe, including keeping a distance and wearing a mask, including around family members who live in different homes.
“I think it’s very challenging to think that you need to put any type of barrier between you and your family,” Johnston said.
Most concerning to Johnston is that even as COVID-19 numbers soar, people are just tired, and it’s hard to make changes in their behavior. She spends a lot of time thinking of ways to better motivate people, she said.
What gives Johnston hope, she said, is that a vaccine does appear to be on the horizon. Recent news from drugmaker Pfizer Inc. about a potentially effective COVID-19 vaccine is encouraging, even though several hurdles remain before distribution.
And in the meantime, it’s still possible to decrease the case counts, Johnston stressed.
“It feels like when you’re trying to turn something big, it’s never going to turn,” she said. “But if you can get it turned, then you get the momentum going in the other direction. And I believe that we can do that.”
Of the 524 new cases among residents reported by the state Tuesday, 229 were in Anchorage, plus 10 in Eagle River and three in Chugiak; 40 in Wasilla; 31 in Fairbanks; 25 in Kenai; 23 in Soldotna; 15 in Bethel; 11 in Palmer; 11 in Utqiagvik; nine in North Pole; seven in Ketchikan; five in Kotzebue; four in Juneau; three in Sterling; three in Healy; two in Kodiak; two in Nikiski; two in Chevak; two in Hooper Bay; one in Seward; one in Homer; one in Willow; one in Dillingham; and one in Valdez.
Among communities with populations smaller than 1,000 not named to protect privacy, there were 52 resident cases in the Bethel Census Area; five in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; five in the Kusilvak Census Area; four in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; four in the North Slope Borough; two in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough; two in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; two in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; two in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough; one in the Mat-Su Borough; one in the Nome Census Area; one in the Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon region; and one in the Dillingham Census Area.
There were also seven new nonresident cases identified: one in Anchorage, two in Prudhoe Bay, two in the Northwest Arctic Borough and two in an unidentified region of the state.
Of the new cases, it is not reported 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 state’s testing positivity as of Tuesday was 7.81% over a seven-day rolling average. A positivity rate over 5% can indicate high community transmission and not enough testing, health officials have said.