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Alaskans letting down their guard, not COVID-19 variants, likely responsible for rising case counts

People walk by a sign stating the number of Alaska COVID-19 deaths and virus case count posted outside a building on W. Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Alaskans letting their guard down — not coronavirus variants — are likely responsible for the recent rise in cases in the state, health officials said this week.

Contagious COVID-19 mutations that can partially evade vaccines and stall the pandemic’s end are part of a haunting scenario playing out in other states and countries, which have seen surges driven by variants many months into the pandemic. The variant first identified in England last year is now the most dominant strain in the U.S., the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

But it’s not yet the dominant strain in Alaska, while virus transmission in the state increased for the second consecutive week, according to an update sent out by the state health department on Thursday.

Case rates are now highest in the Mat-Su, the Interior and Anchorage, though rates also rose in most regions of the state.

“We’re not seeing a lot of the variants here in Alaska, fortunately,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “Probably what’s happening is people are loosening up their COVID mitigation efforts,” he said. “That’s probably what’s contributing the most to the growing case counts.”

More than a year into the pandemic, Alaskans — who can see a light at the end of the tunnel and are impatient to return to their pre-pandemic lives — are not as vigilant at keeping away from other people, wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, at a moment when the alert level is still high in most regions of the state and a relatively small percentage of the population is fully vaccinated.

With vaccines now widely available, gathering with friends and family and relaxing public health protocols even before being fully vaccinated “just seems more acceptable” to a lot of people, said Jayme Parker, who heads up the state’s public health laboratories.

“But I do think that it offers those avenues for exposures to happen,” she said.

Relatively few COVID-19 variant cases found so far in Alaska

So far, 75 cases of five coronavirus variants of concern have been identified through testing and sequencing efforts in Alaska, including 61 cases of a variant first identified in California, and a single case of a variant first identified in South Africa, according to a report put out by the state this week.

The latter strain, B.1.351, has caused particular worry among epidemiologists because certain COVID-19 vaccines — particularly the AstraZeneca vaccine — initially seemed to be less effective against it.

What’s encouraging, however, is that all three vaccines currently available in the U.S. have now been shown to have at least some efficacy against all the variants, including B.1.351. Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine had an efficacy rate against that variant somewhere in the 50% range — and the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines had even higher rates, McLaughlin said.

More good news is that 75 is a relatively low number of variant cases found so far in Alaska compared to the hundreds of specimens that have been sequenced, said Parker.

In recent weeks, the state has ramped up its sequencing efforts, and is now processing between 200-300 specimens a week to check for variants. That means that while some states are only able to sequence about 1% of their total cases, Alaska has been averaging sequencing between 20% and 30% of its weekly cases.

“We are sequencing a pretty high proportion of cases, and we aren’t seeing a really high fraction of those being variants,” Parker said during public information call this week. “It’s mainly just the run-of-the-mill virus that we’ve seen this whole time.”

A push and pull as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said this week that even as cases rise, hospitalizations and deaths now appear to be much lower than they were in late 2020, during the last surge — likely because of higher vaccination rates among older Alaskans, who are most vulnerable to severe illness from the virus.

By Friday, about 70% of Alaskans 65 and older were considered fully vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.

But rising cases counts — particularly at a moment when the rate of vaccination appears to be plateauing statewide — is still a cause for concern, health officials said last week.

The rise in cases comes at a moment when pandemic restrictions have also started to ease up: most schools around the state have now at least partially reopened to in-person learning, and in Anchorage, restrictions on business capacity and gathering sizes were eased last month.

Traveling is also now easier than it was once was, with Alaska and many states no longer requiring a quarantine or proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to travel.

There isn’t one single activity or behavior health officials point to that’s contributing to the rise in cases. Overall, they are showing up in a variety places — schools and social events, among travelers into the state, in correctional settings, as well as at sports tournaments, said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state.

“We don’t have one single venue or one single event that’s driving all the numbers,” she said. “And I think that’s what makes people nervous is that things can spiral out of control in many different venues, many different geographic locations at the same time.”

Mobility data from the U.S. Department of Transportation also shows Alaskans are now traveling both within and outside of the state at pre-pandemic rates.

The latest CDC guidance says fully vaccinated people can socialize together indoors unmasked, and safely resume a number of other activities like traveling.

But a majority of Alaskans are not fully vaccinated yet.

By Friday, 266,036 people — about 44% of Alaskans eligible for a shot — had received at least their first dose, according to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard. At least 203,259 people — a little over a third of Alaskans 16 and older — were considered fully vaccinated.

Those are encouraging numbers, said Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist with the state health department. But it’s not quite enough vaccinations for Alaskans to fully let their guards down.

“When we get to 70%-80% vaccinated, we should see a dramatic decrease” in cases, he said. “That’s the point where vaccine takes effect, and it comes more to individual cases instead outbreaks.”

Zink described the present moment as a push and pull.

“We’re vaccinating, but on the other hand, we’re letting down our guard, so I think we’re kind of in a tug-of-war between those two right now,” she said.

Daily News reporter Morgan Krakow contributed reporting.

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