Alaska News

Alaska reports a record 18 deaths and 533 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

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Alaska on Saturday reported a record 18 deaths and 533 new coronavirus infections, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The 18 deaths announced Saturday mark the highest number of deaths reported in a single day. Of the deaths announced Saturday, five occurred recently while 13 were identified through reviews of death certificates.

The five recent deaths involved a Kenai woman in her 90s; a Kenai man in his 70s; an Anchorage woman in her 70s; an Anchorage man in his 70s; and an Utqiagvik man in his 60s.

The 13 COVID-19 deaths that occurred in the past months involved an Anchorage woman in her 90s; two Anchorage women in their 80s; an Anchorage man in his 80s; an Anchorage woman in her 70s; an Anchorage man in his 70s; an Anchorage man in his 50s; a man from the Bethel Census Area in his 80s; a man from the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area in his 80s; a Wasilla woman in her 80s; a man from the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area in his 60s; and a woman from the Kusilvak Census Area in her 20s.

The previous record was 13 deaths reported Nov. 24, followed closely by the 12 deaths reported Dec. 4.

In total, 175 Alaskans and one nonresident with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic began here in March, according to the Department of Health and Social Services. Alaska’s overall death rate per capita is one of the lowest in the country, but officials say it’s difficult to compare Alaska to other states because of its vast geography and vulnerable health care system.

After weeks of surging daily case counts, Alaska as of Saturday ranked ninth in the country for average daily cases per capita over the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rising case numbers have translated into increasing hospitalizations and deaths.


[First doses of COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive in Alaska in the next couple days]

Between the end of November and the first few days of December, COVID-19 cases continued to increase statewide, but the growth rate did slow over the past three weeks, state health officials wrote in a weekly report. They cautioned that new cases have overwhelmed the health department’s ability to report them and that recent case counts underestimate the true number of new COVID-19 infections statewide.

Community transmission statewide is still high, both in urban and rural communities, with almost every region in the state seeing a recent increase. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough saw cases more than double between Nov. 20 and Dec. 5 while the Kenai Peninsula Borough had “extremely high rates of transmission” in that timeframe as well, health officials wrote.

In Anchorage, case counts started to plateau this week but remained much higher than health officials would like, Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, told reporters during a Friday briefing. Using a modeling tool, Johnston demonstrated that a 10-person gathering in Anchorage has a 37% chance of one person being infected with COVID-19.

“One of the reasons we’re so worried about case counts is that each case is a person who may experience both short- and long-term effects of COVID, and a person who may need care from the Anchorage health care system,” Johnston said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations at the city’s three hospitals have remained high in recent weeks, Johnston said, and as of Thursday there were only five intensive care unit beds available in Anchorage. Even if cases level off, Johnston said she expects to continue seeing more deaths from the virus, given that they can occur weeks after someone initially tests positive.

State health officials continue to ask Alaskans to avoid indoor gatherings with non-household members, and have said that most Alaskans who contract the virus get it from a friend, family member or co-worker.

As infections continue to rise, so does concern from officials about the potential for the state’s hospitals becoming overwhelmed as they continue to see major staffing issues.

By Saturday, 127 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Alaska and another 10 people in hospitals were suspected to be infected with the virus, according to preliminary data. Seventeen people with COVID-19 were on ventilators. There were 32 ICU beds available statewide out of 133 staffed beds, and about 15.6% of the adult patients hospitalized around the state had tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 527 new cases reported by the state Saturday among Alaska residents, there were 200 in Anchorage, plus 17 in Eagle River and seven in Chugiak; 56 in Bethel; 54 in Fairbanks and 13 in North Pole; 50 in Wasilla, nine in Palmer and one in Willow; 25 in Kodiak; 11 in Utqiagvik; 10 in Kenai, nine in Homer, seven in Soldotna, three in Sterling and one in Seward; four in Juneau; three in Sitka; two in Nome; two in Kotzebue; two in Unalaska; two in Chevak; two in Hooper Bay; one in Cordova; one in Healy; one in Delta Junction; one in Ketchikan; and one in Craig.

Among communities smaller than 1,000 people not named to protect privacy, there were 13 resident cases in the Kusilvak Census Area; five in the Bethel Census Area; three in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough; two in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; two in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; two in the North Slope Borough; two in the Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon region; one in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; one in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; and one in the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula boroughs.

Six cases were reported among nonresidents: one in Anchorage, one in Fairbanks, one in Juneau and three identified as unknown.

The statewide test positivity rate was 6% based on a seven-day rolling average. Rates over 5% can indicate inadequate broad testing, as well as increased community transmission.

While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the state health department represents only one person.

It is not clear how many of the people who tested positive in Saturday’s results were showing symptoms. The CDC estimates about a third of people with coronavirus infections are asymptomatic.

— Morgan Krakow

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