The pandemic in Alaska is continuing to grow, with the state reporting 551 new COVID-19 cases and record hospitalizations, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
“We’re in an acceleration phase (in Alaska),” said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, during a call Wednesday. “I don’t think we have a hint yet that things are leveling off.”
Protecting the state’s health care capacity amid staffing shortages and limited ICU bed capacity continues to be a top concern, officials say.
As of Wednesday, 129 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alaska and 15 were on ventilators, the most patients since the pandemic began. An additional 18 hospitalized people were suspected to have COVID-19.
By Friday, there were more than 530 health care workers unable to do their jobs due to either a positive COVID-19 test, a close exposure to someone who tested positive, or quarantine related to travel. That’s according to a poll conducted last week by Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said in an interview Tuesday that Alaska’s ability to care for patients in its health care system keeps her up at night. She said that if a lot of people were to enter it hospitals at once, there wouldn’t be time or resources to suddenly grow the system, especially as cases nationwide surge.
“I feel like we’ve been running in front of this tidal wave since the beginning, but it’s catching up with us as a state,” Zink said. “And no matter how fast or how hard we are trying to run, it’s catching up.”
Zink said she is also kept awake by the COVD-19 patients she sees in the emergency department, wondering what she could have done differently so that a patient could go home to their kids, she said.
She’s bolstered by conversations with people statewide who are creative in the face of the pandemic and hopes people take the numbers seriously, she said. Plus, initial data on a potential COVID-19 vaccine shows real promise and effectiveness.
”I think we can see the hope at the end of the tunnel,” Zink said. “This is not going to last forever.”
Alaska’s surging case numbers and hospitalizations are part of a national trend: The national coronavirus death toll has now surpassed 250,000 people, and all 50 states reported increasing caseloads in the past week.
State health officials say the rise in cases is causing contact tracing efforts to be strained statewide, and ask those who test positive to reach out to their own close contacts. Close contacts should then quarantine for two weeks even if they’re not showing any symptoms, and even if they receive negative test results during that time.
Many people who are infectious have only mild symptoms, or haven’t yet started feeling sick. Oftentimes virus spread happens before people start exhibiting symptoms but are already contagious, health officials say.
Alaska’s overall death rate per capita remains among the lowest in the country but has been slowly rising.
There were no new deaths reported Wednesday, and in total, 99 Alaskans with COVID-19 have died and one nonresident has died.
Of the 549 new cases reported in Alaska residents, there were 251 in Anchorage, plus 10 in Chugiak, 25 in Eagle River, and one in Girdwood; five in Homer; 26 in Kenai; one in Nikiski; three in Seward; 21 in Soldotna; nine in Sterling; 11 in Kodiak; four in Cordova; 25 in Fairbanks; 11 in North Pole; six in Delta Junction; one in Tok; two in Big Lake; nine in Palmer; one in Sutton-Alpine; 27 in Wasilla; one in Willow; six in Utqiagvik; two in Kotzebue; seven in Juneau; one in Ketchikan; one in Sitka; 35 in Bethel; and one in Chevak.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 people that are not named to protect privacy, there were two in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; two in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; two in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; two in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; two in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; one in the North Slope Borough; one in the Northwest Arctic Borough; three in the Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon; 21 in the Bethel Census Area; one in Bristol By plus Lake and Peninsula; and nine in the Kusilvak Census Area.
Another two cases were reported in nonresidents: one in Anchorage and one in an unidentified region of the state.
Of the new cases, it is not reported how many patients were showing symptoms when they tested positive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Infection estimates that about a third of people who have the virus are asymptomatic.
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 Wednesday was 8.26% over a seven-day rolling average. A positivity rate over 5% can indicate high community transmission and not enough testing, health officials have said.
A note on the state’s data dashboard indicates that the surge in cases has caused some data reporting to lag “far behind real-time,” particularly the number of recovered cases.