Alaska’s daily COVID-19 case tally jumped to a record high of 745 new cases on Saturday as the state reported one new death and consistently high virus hospitalizations.
An Anchorage man in his 60s was the 98th Alaskan to die with COVID-19, the state Department of Health and Social Services said Saturday. A nonresident in Alaska with the virus has also died, the state said this week.
The record-breaking daily case total comes on the heels of a week in which the state reported several of its highest case tallies and hospitalizations rose to their highest levels since the pandemic began here in March. For weeks, hospital officials and public health experts have voiced serious concerns about health care capacity in Alaska and the state’s ability to care for a sudden influx of severely ill patients.
By Saturday, state data showed 113 people with COVID-19 hospitalized statewide, while another 19 hospital patients were suspected of having the illness. There was a total of 38 adult intensive care unit beds available statewide Saturday.
Several hospitals and nursing homes have staff in quarantine as the virus courses through communities statewide. Simultaneously, more people are ending up at the state’s hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. By Saturday, more than a tenth of all people hospitalized in Alaska had the illness.
Officials are concerned that rapid case increases could lead to a wave of patients at hospitals that cannot effectively treat them, while hospitals are working to build out capacity as much as possible.
Dr. Robert Onders, Alaska Native Medical Center administrator, said the hospital last week had enough staff for 18 beds — all of which were full. The Alaska Native Medical Center opened an alternate care site in the last two weeks, and Onders said they’re prepared to open an extra wing for more COVID-19 patients if needed.
The previous daily case record was 604 new cases, reported last Saturday.
The 5,621 virus cases identified in the first two weeks of November among Alaska residents represent nearly 29% of all resident cases since the start of the pandemic. Aside from the state’s major population centers, Western Alaska has been especially hard hit. On Friday and Saturday, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. reported a total of 153 new cases amid ongoing transmission in several communities throughout the largely roadless and remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home to about 23,000 people.
While the state’s per capita death rate has remained relatively low since March, at least 19 U.S. states and territories — including Oregon, Washington, California and Hawaii — had lower death rates in the last seven days, national data showed Saturday.
Resources statewide, including health care workers and contact tracers, are becoming strained as cases pile on, health officials say. In Anchorage, the majority of new cases are being outreached within a day by contact tracers. But only close contacts identified as “higher risk” are now getting calls, according to Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department.
Anchorage emergency officials are now urging everyone to get a COVID-19 test whether they’re showing symptoms or not.
City health officials said it was likely further restrictions would be needed to get the pandemic under control. Municipal residents accounted for 489 of the new cases reported Saturday.
“I would say ideally we want to see what the effect of the recent changes in emergency orders have been,” Johnston said Friday. A tightened mask mandate and new limits on gathering sizes went into effect in Anchorage on Monday.
“My sense is that what they’re doing at this point is to reduce the rate of increase, and that if we want to actually flatten the curve and bring down the cases, we’re going to need more extreme measures,” she said.
Alaska’s leaders continue to implore the public to take pandemic precautions seriously. They specifically advise wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, frequent handwashing and staying at least 6 feet from non-household members. Many of the state’s most recent cases have been linked to households and small get-togethers, health officials say.
Of the 736 resident cases reported by the state Saturday, 433 were in Anchorage, plus 44 in Eagle River and 12 in Chugiak; 63 in Fairbanks; 31 in Wasilla; 19 in Bethel; 15 in Juneau; 14 in Soldotna; 13 in North Pole; 11 in Ketchikan; nine in Homer; nine in Delta Junction; seven in Kenai; five in Palmer; five in Utqiagvik; two in Fritz Creek; two in Nikiski; two in Seward; two in Sterling; one in Kodiak; one in Cordova; one in Nome; one in Kotzebue; one in Petersburg; one in Metlakatla; one in Sitka; and two in unidentified regions of the state.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 people that are not named to protect privacy, there were six resident cases in the Bethel Census Area; five in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough; four in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; three in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; two in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; two in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; two in the Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon region; one in the Denali Borough; one in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; one in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough; one in the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula boroughs; and one in the Kusilvak Census Area.
The state also reported nine nonresident cases in unidentified regions 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 Saturday was 8.9% over a seven-day rolling average. A positivity rate over 5% can indicate high community transmission and not enough testing, health officials say.
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