Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday urged more Alaskans to get vaccinated as daily COVID-19 case counts continued to increase and communities across the state experience outbreaks.
“There is a safe, free, and widely available tool to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “That tool is the vaccine.”
According Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services dashboard, now being updated five days a week, the state reported 338 new cases of COVID-19 and two new deaths on Wednesday.
Dunleavy, who is himself vaccinated and also contracted COVID-19 in February, has recommended the vaccine in the past. But his message Wednesday was more urgent than previous statements — last month, the governor issued a statement listing getting a COVID-19 vaccine among other “everyday actions” Alaskans can take to stay safe this summer, along with wearing a life jacket, using proper protective gear when using power tools and putting out camp fires.
By Wednesday, 48% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 44% of the population was considered fully vaccinated. Health officials call the vaccine the best tool the state has to address rising cases and hospitalizations caused by the virus.
Alaska’s latest surge in cases has been linked to the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant, which is now responsible for at least 80% of all cases in the United States — and likely an even higher percentage of Alaska’s cases.
A new report from the state health department published this week showed that the delta variant accounted for about 96% of all cases sequenced during the week beginning on July 11.
The western Alaska village of Stebbins went into lockdown following an outbreak there that had grown to 43 active cases by Wednesday. Nearly 50 active cases caused by community spread were also reported in communities in the Maniilaq service area, including Kotzebue and Point Hope.
By Wednesday, there were 100 people hospitalized with the virus in Alaska, including 20 who were on ventilators. That total is up slightly from Tuesday when there were 98 people with COVID-19 who were sick enough to require hospitalization.
Alaska’s current hospitalization numbers have remained relatively steady over the last week, but are considered high for a state with a limited health care infrastructure and hospitals that are already close to capacity during the summer.
Last winter, the number of virus-related hospitalizations hovered between 150 and 160. As recently as early July, hospitalizations were less than a quarter of what they are now.
The new deaths reported Wednesday involved an Alaska resident and a nonresident, both in Anchorage. It wasn’t immediately clear how recently they had died. In total, 385 Alaskans and eight nonresidents have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state last spring.
Between January and the end of July, 94% of the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and 97% of deaths have been among Alaskans who are unvaccinated.
The state health department said last week that even fully vaccinated Alaskans in communities with high COVID-19 transmission should consider masking up again in public, indoor spaces. That recommendation was in line with recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Around the state, communities, agencies and school boards are responding to the rising cases and new guidance with recommendations and orders of their own.
The University of Alaska in Anchorage updated its policy this week to say that students living in the dorms in the fall must be vaccinated — in addition to a requirement that masks be worn in most indoor spaces.
The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday upheld the school superintendent’s decision to require masks indoors in school buildings as the district prepares to resume classes.
Also, Alaska’s court system announced it will resume requiring masks for all visitors, regardless of vaccination status, following a special order signed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The state’s test positivity rate fell slightly on Wednesday. Of all the tests conducted over the past week, 6.01% were positive. Epidemiologists have said a positivity rate over 5% is a cause for concern, because it points to higher transmission and not enough virus detection.
Of the 323 cases reported in Alaska residents on Wednesday, there were 129 in Anchorage, 22 in Kodiak, 22 in Wasilla, 15 in Fairbanks, 14 in Eagle River, 12 in Ketchikan, 12 in Soldotna, 11 in Sitka, nine in Homer, nine in Juneau, nine in Kenai, seven in Palmer, four in Anchor Point, four in Big Lake, three in Craig, three in North Pole, three in Seward, two in Cordova, two in Skagway, two in Sutton-Alpine, two in Utqiaġvik, and one each in Bethel, Douglas, Healy, Nikiski, Sterling, Tok and Valdez.
Among smaller communities, there were six in the Nome Census Area, two in the Bethel Census Area, two in the Copper River Census Area, two in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, two in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough, two in the Northwest Arctic Borough, two in the Yukon-Koyukok Census Area, two in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough and one in the Prince Of Wales and Hyder Census Area.
There were also 15 new nonresident cases identified: four in Anchorage, two in a small community or communities in the Copper River Census Area, two in Juneau, two in Skagway, two in Wasilla, one in Soldotna, one in Fairbanks and one in an unidentified region of the state.