A recent and significant resurgence of COVID-19 in Alaska continued over the weekend, with state data showing 456 new cases reported since Friday plus an uptick in hospitalizations, causing the state to return to a high alert level for the first time since May.
“Case counts are increasing at a rapid rate,” Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist said Monday. “And that is concerning, especially as we see hospitalization rates also increasing.”
By Monday, virus-related hospitalizations in the state had surpassed a previous surge in May. There were a total of 69 Alaskans hospitalized statewide with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, according to Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services — including 12 people who were on ventilators.
That’s up from 57 hospitalizations reported as of Friday, and 50 reported last Wednesday — and more than twice the daily average for most of June.
Of all tests conducted over the past week, 4.88% came back positive — marking the highest that rate has been since winter.
Alaska’s surge is currently mirroring what’s happening in the Lower 48, McLaughlin said.
National data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nationally, cases over the past week have increased by about 59% compared to the week before — and hospitalizations have increased by about 30%.
While many of Alaska’s recent hospitalizations have been concentrated in Anchorage, in the more rural Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of the state, three hospitalizations were reported in the past two weeks, including two patients currently in the hospital.
Prior to that, the region’s last hospitalization was in mid-April, a spokesperson for the regional health corporation said Monday.
Over the past two weeks, COVID-related hospitalizations at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage have increased significantly, said Dr. Holly Alfrey, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
“We were down to almost two, and today we’re up to about 11,” she said.
The recent increase is being driven almost entirely by patients who are unvaccinated, Alfrey said. Over the entire course of the pandemic, the hospital has only had one fully vaccinated COVID-positive patient treated in their ICU, she said — and that person was admitted for non-COVID reasons.
The vast majority of Alaska’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among Alaskans who were unvaccinated. By Monday, 43% of all Alaskans were considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving many vulnerable to severe illness.
Alfrey said the rise in cases and hospitalizations in the state is concerning — and that hospital capacity is being further strained by regular staffing shortages, plus an uptick in non-COVID, trauma-related hospitalizations that typically happen during the summer in Alaska.
Health officials have partially attributed Alaska’s recent rise in cases to the more contagious delta variant first identified in India in December. The delta variant is considered the most transmissible strain yet, and in some studies has been linked to more severe illness than the original virus.
“The delta variant is continuing to expand its foothold in Alaska,” McLaughlin said.
It is now considered the dominant strain circulating in the state, he added, citing the latest data from the state’s sequencing efforts.
Other factors for the rise in cases likely had to do with Alaskans feeling more comfortable gathering together indoors, McLaughlin said.
He said the best tool Alaskans have to bring cases back down is to increase the number of people who are fully vaccinated in the state.
“If you’re not yet vaccinated, please consider getting vaccinated as soon as possible,” McLaughlin said.
The three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the state have been shown to be quite effective at preventing severe illness from the virus, including its more contagious variants.
Non-vaccinated Alaskans should continue practicing mitigation strategies like wearing a mask indoors and around non-household members, he said.
Fully vaccinated Alaskans who are higher-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 may want to continue practicing those strategies as an added precaution, too, McLaughlin added.
Of the 436 newly reported resident cases, there were 221 in Anchorage, 36 in Sitka, 21 in Wasilla, 17 in Eagle River, 15 in Juneau, 15 in Soldotna, 14 in Cordova, 12 in Homer, nine in Chugiak, nine in Kenai, eight in Kodiak, eight in Seward, seven in Fairbanks, five in Anchor Point, four in North Pole, four in Palmer, four in Petersburg, two in Delta Junction, two in Kotzebue, two in Nikiski, two in Valdez, and one each in Bethel, Dillingham, Douglas, Skagway, Utqiagvik and Wrangell.
Among smaller communities, there were four in the Dillingham Census Area, two in the Aleutians East Borough, two in the Kusilvak Census Area, and one each in the Bethel Census Area, the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough, the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Mat-Su Borough and the North Slope Borough.
Twenty nonresident cases were also identified: nine in Anchorage, six in Juneau, one in Cordova, one in Fairbanks, one in Soldotna and two in unidentified regions of the state.
No new deaths were reported Monday. In total, 374 Alaskans and seven nonresidents with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic reached the state last spring.