Alaska on Thursday reported 366 new COVID-19 infections and the deaths of two Anchorage residents as state health officials described positive signs emerging in recent virus numbers.
Health officials said Thursday that they are finally starting to see a decline in virus spread after a monthslong surge that has put pressure on the state’s health care system and caused record hospitalizations and deaths.
“We’re all very cautiously optimistic that things are flat,” said Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, during a media briefing on Thursday.
“If the trends continue where we’re are, we’re going to be really happy,” added Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Castrodale said that the public health team has finished working through a data backlog and that the turnaround times for some of the lab reports have started shrinking, too.
“We did ... check our fax machine to make sure there’s paper, and make sure all the electronic feeds from the labs are coming in right,” she said. “And it feels like it’s sort of real.”
Officials said that it is difficult to attribute the decline to any one thing.
Anchorage’s monthlong modified “hunker-down,” which began Dec. 1, could be helping, said Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state health department.
“State rates are driven to a large degree by Anchorage counts, and we’re seeing counts decreasing there,” he said.
Still, health officials encouraged Alaskans to remain cautious and to keep up with their virus mitigation efforts heading into the holidays.
“When we let up on the brakes, then we start to see cases rise quickly,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.
Limited vaccine distribution is underway across the state, but most Alaskans won’t have access to a vaccine for many more months, she noted. And all regions of the state remained in the high alert category as of Thursday.
Hospitals across the state continue to show limited capacity, according to the Department of Health and Social Services. By Thursday, there were 131 people with COVID-19 hospitalized statewide and another nine in hospitals who were suspected of being infected with the virus. In total, 13.5% of people hospitalized in Alaska had COVID-19.
Throughout the state, there were 35 staffed adult intensive care unit beds left open. In Anchorage, where the state’s sickest patients often end up, just two of 73 intensive care unit beds were available.
The deaths reported Thursday involved an Anchorage woman in her 70s and an Anchorage man in his 60s, according to the state health department.
In total, 182 Alaskans and one nonresident with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic began here in March. Alaska’s overall death rate per capita is among 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.
Of the 360 new cases reported among Alaska residents Thursday, there were 152 in Anchorage, plus 18 in Eagle River and seven in Chugiak; 54 in Wasilla; 24 in Fairbanks; 22 in Bethel; 14 in Utqiagvik; nine in Soldotna; eight in Kodiak; eight in North Pole; eight in Palmer; five in Kenai; two in Homer; two in Nome; two in Sitka; one in Anchor Point; one in Nikiski; one in Seward; one in Sutton-Alpine; one in Ketchikan; and one in Unalaska.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 residents not named to protect privacy, there were seven in the Kusilvak Census Area; two in the Kodiak Island Borough; two in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; two in the Northwest Arctic Borough; two in the Yakutat plus Hoonah Angoon region; one in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough; one in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; one in the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area; and one in Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula boroughs.
Of the six new cases reported among nonresidents, there were two in Wasilla, one in Unalaska and three in an unidentified region of the state.
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 were showing symptoms. The CDC estimates about a third of people with coronavirus infections are asymptomatic.
The statewide test positivity rate was 6.05% over the last week, after reaching a peak of over 9% in mid-November. Health officials said that a positivity rate above 5% can indicate widespread community transmission.