COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations kept ticking upward this week as Alaska health officials anticipated that the state’s latest virus surge will continue based on current trends.
On Friday, Alaska reported 447 infections, two virus-related deaths and a continued rise in hospitalizations over the last two days, with much of the state remaining at a high alert level.
Other states with similar mitigation strategies and vaccination rates — including Missouri, Arkansas and Florida — are reaching their fall and winter case loads, Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, told reporters on a Thursday call.
In Alaska, “I don’t see any reason to think this is the top as of right now,” Zink said. “I think we have a chance to learn from other states, and really encourage people to get vaccinated, like today. ... We have a chance, but that window is narrowing quickly.”
By Friday, roughly 57% of Alaska’s population age 12 and older had received at least their first dose of the vaccine while 52% of all residents 12 and older were considered fully vaccinated. Among all states, Alaska ranked No. 29 in the country for most vaccinated residents per capita.
Health officials have said that higher vaccination rates — in the range of 70-80% of the total population — are needed to prevent widespread outbreaks, but vaccinations in Alaska have plateaued since spring.
In Sitka, the worst outbreak the community has suffered since the pandemic began continued with another 64 cases reported Thursday and Friday. The average case rates in the community of just over 8,500 remained among the highest in the country at the county level.
By Friday, there were 80 people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 hospitalized around the state — up from 70 on Wednesday. In the second half of June, that number hovered between 10 and 19.
According to a New York Times tracker updated Friday, Alaska’s 163% increase in hospitalizations over the last two weeks was the highest among U.S. states over that time period. Local hospitals say they’re feeling the strain.
“We’ve been running pretty close to full capacity for the last 10 days,” said Dr. Michael Bernstein, chief medical officer at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
The hospitalization surge, however, remains significantly below what it was during the state’s worst spike last fall and winter. At the peak, coronavirus hospitalizations statewide hovered around 160 — more than double the current count.
The vast majority of hospitalizations in the state right now involve people who aren’t vaccinated — and trending younger than the patients seen earlier in the pandemic, Bernstein said.
“We’re seeing more patients under the age of 50” at Providence, he said. “And we believe that’s because we have higher vaccination rates in the older parts of our population, because they’re more susceptible. But these younger patients are still getting very sick at times.”
The two deaths reported Friday occurred recently and involved an Anchorage man in his 60s and a Petersburg man in his 70s. In total, 377 Alaskans and seven nonresidents with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic reached the state last spring.
Alaska’s death rate per capita remains among the lowest in the country, though the state’s size, health care system and other factors complicate national comparisons.
Health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated against the virus, noting that the vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness from the virus, including the more contagious variants.
The recent rise in cases can likely be attributed in part to the highly contagious delta variant first identified in India in December and in Alaska in May, health officials have said. The newer strain has been linked to higher hospitalization rates, and is considered the most transmissible variant yet.
Of the 427 new resident cases reported Thursday and Friday, there were 137 in Anchorage, 64 in Sitka, 30 in Wasilla, 23 in Juneau, 19 in Fairbanks, 15 in Soldotna, 10 in Eagle River, 10 in Kenai, 10 in Nome, 10 in Seward, seven in Cordova, seven in Kodiak, five in North Pole, five in Palmer, five in Tok, five in Valdez, four in Chugiak, four in Unalaska, two in Bethel, two in Delta Junction, two in Hooper Bay, and one each in Chevak, Douglas, Healy, Sterling and Wrangell.
Among smaller communities, there were 17 in the Bethel Census Area, 10 in the Copper River Census Area, four in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough, three in the Dillingham Census Area, three in the Kusilvak Census Area, two in the Aleutians East Borough and one each in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, northern Kenai Peninsula Borough, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Kodiak Island Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Northwest Arctic Borough and Prince Of Wales-Hyder Census Area.
There were 20 nonresident cases also identified: five in Anchorage, two in Fairbanks, two in Ketchikan, two in Kodiak, two in the Northwest Arctic Borough, two in Unalaska, one in Sitka, one in Juneau and three in unidentified regions of the state.
Of all the coronavirus tests completed in the state over the last week, 5.42% came back positive.
Note: The health department now updates its coronavirus dashboard on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays excluding holidays.