Alaska’s health officials are warning the ongoing COVID-19 wave has yet to peak as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly, compromising health care capacity in a state with just over half its eligible residents fully vaccinated.
Alaska on Thursday reported three deaths in people with COVID-19 and the highest number of new cases in residents since early January.
“I think we’re at a really hard part in the pandemic in many ways,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said during a media briefing Thursday. “The virus has changed — it is spread more easily from person to person and is really rapidly spreading in the same time we have less health care capacity than we did before.”
But the biggest difference, Zink said, is that Alaskans have less tolerance for mitigation efforts — masking, social distancing — while many are also choosing to not get vaccinated.
“Right now, we’re all making a choice between vaccine and COVID with how quickly this is spreading,” she said.
Surging case numbers, combined with staff shortages and the usual rise in summertime hospitalizations, are limiting health care resources, Zink said. Some ER patients wait hours before they’re seen or get transferred to Seattle, while procedures normally done through hospital stays are being shifted to outpatient settings.
“We are seeing a change in the standard of care across all patient types currently because of the surging cases, in Alaska and across the country,” she said.
The deaths reported Thursday involved an Anchorage man in his 50s, a Wasilla man in his 70s and a woman from Ketchikan over 80, according to the state. All were recent. In Alaska, 395 residents and eight nonresidents have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state last spring.
The state also reported 378 new cases in residents and another 28 cases in nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. The last time that tally was higher for residents was Jan. 7, when 400 new cases were reported.
Nationally, the country is still on a steady upward trajectory in new cases with “no sign of levelling off, and I’d say that’s also true in Alaska,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this month issued a statement encouraging Alaskans to get vaccinated. The state has no mandates requiring masking, vaccinations or other measures. Dunleavy issued an order in April opposing vaccine passports.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has made it clear he has no plans to require masks in the city or implement other precautions like capacity restrictions.
Asked whether governments should rethink policies to stop the spread of the delta variant, McLaughlin and Zink said that choice was up to individuals.
“We know what works,” McLaughlin said, listing vaccines, masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds. “To the extent that Alaskans go ahead and implement those layers, we’re going to see a decrease in cases and to the extent people are not doing that, we’re going to see an increase ... that’s just the way this virus rolls.”
On Wednesday, there were 116 people with COVID-19 hospitalized around the state, according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. Patients with the virus accounted for about 12% of total hospitalizations, according to state data. Coronavirus patients, however, generally take more time, personal protection, and staffing to care for than conventional patients.
There were just over 100 people hospitalized with the virus four or five days ago, according to Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
“That is not looking good,” Kosin said.
Nearly all Alaska’s recent coronavirus-related hospitalizations involved unvaccinated people, hospital administrators say.
Unvaccinated people accounted for 92% of all people testing positive, 94% of all hospitalizations, and 96% of Alaska’s deaths between January and last week, health officials said Thursday.
The state’s vaccination rate did increase slightly between the beginning of July and the beginning of August: There were 987 vaccinations administered per 100,000 in early July and 1,283 per 100,000 at the beginning of this month, according to Matt Bobo, director of the state’s immunization program.
By Thursday, 49.1% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 44.2% of the entire population was considered fully vaccinated. Among eligible Alaskans 12 and older, 58.9% had received one dose, and 53.1% had completed their vaccination series.
A new testing site in Anchorage at the Alaska Airlines Center was established this week in response to an increased demand for testing in the municipality. That site will be open seven days a week, from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. Anchorage residents can visit anchoragecovidtest.org to find a free testing site near them.
The state updated its COVID-19 testing guidance this week to better align with CDC recommendations: Anyone experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 — “even mild, cold-like symptoms” should get tested immediately. Asymptomatic, fully vaccinated people who are close contacts of someone who has tested positive should get tested between three and five days after exposure.
The state’s test positivity rate as reported Thursday was 7.1%. Health officials say anything over 5% can indicate there’s not enough testing in a community.