Alaska reported 701 new COVID-19 cases in residents on Thursday, the highest daily count so far this year, and one of the highest since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.
Hospitalizations of COVID-positive patients are also nearing pandemic highs, according to the state hospital association.
Thursday’s count of hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 was in the high 140s, according to Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. Alaska’s highest COVID-19 patient count ever was 151 during the winter peak of cases.
But this time, the surge in hospitalizations is combining with staff shortages and busy summertime admissions to overwhelm the health care system, providers and state officials say. Providers are imploring Alaskans to get vaccinated and wear masks in indoor settings to halt the spread of the aggressive delta variant.
Doctors and nurses are making difficult decisions about who gets ICU beds and struggling to transfer severely ill patients to other already overwhelmed facilities.
Hospitals in Anchorage are full, and outlying hospitals on the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su are seeing record numbers of COVID-positive patients, Kosin said: 25 at Central Peninsula Hospital and 21 at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where 10 are on ventilators.
“As far as we’re concerned, the crisis we have been warning about is here,” he said. “And we need to act like that. It looks like it’s going to get a lot worse.”
The state dashboard on Thursday showed 127 patients. That data lags behind real time. Seventy were in Anchorage hospitals, where there were two ICU beds available in the entire city, according to a municipal dashboard. Almost 20% of the emergency room visits in the city were COVID-related.
Late Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and administration officials said they are speeding the licensing process for health care workers, seeking federal contracts for more workers, and taking other steps to increase the number of people who can treat COVID-19 patients.
“Right now, it’s not beds that are the limitation, it’s not ventilator capacity that’s a limitation, it’s staff and it’s people,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.
“If there are any people who want to come to the state of Alaska, we are doing everything possible to make sure that you can get an expedited process and come work as a health care provider, so please do,” said Adam Crum, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Most of the severely ill COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, providers say.
Dunleavy and other officials, in a news conference streamed on Facebook, said vaccination remains the best solution to the ongoing crisis.
But the governor stopped one step short of urging vaccinations, instead saying Alaskans should talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated “if that’s what they want to do.”
“We know what we need to do. People know what they need to do,” Dunleavy said. “They need to have conversations with their doctor and make a decision, if that’s what they want to do. If they don’t, then they have to understand that they run the risk of getting infected, especially with this variant that is highly contagious.”
In response to a reporter’s question asking whether that is an effective technique to encourage vaccination, Dunleavy said, “This isn’t North Korea. You don’t dictate to people how they live their lives.”
“I think it’s the best strategy. It’s 2021. This isn’t some place in Europe in 1939. You have conversations with folks. ... You have conversations with your doctors. You have conversations with your friends ... People aren’t stupid,” he said.
The state’s vaccine numbers are up, state health officials say. There were more than 13,000 doses administered last week, a 24% increase compared to a week a month ago, Zink said.
The continued acceleration in new cases — this week’s numbers are 11% higher than last — is leading to backlogs in testing and contact tracing.
As high as it is, the daily count Thursday is probably lower than reality, state health officials say.
“Today we reported out over 700 cases and we still haven’t gotten through the entire backlog,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist. “We’re seeing very high levels of transmission right now. We’re dealing with a strain of the virus that is completely different in terms of transmission than previous strains. It’s probably twice as transmissable if not more ... than the orignal Wuhan strain.”
State contact tracers are struggling to keep up with the influx of new cases. Contact tracers reach out to people at risk of COVID-19 infection from exposure to people who test positive.
Contact tracing delays prompted health officials this week to instruct people who test positive to self-isolate and reach out personally to their close contacts. Meanwhile, state contact tracers are prioritizing people with recent test results, within four days, to interrupt transmission while they’re most infectious.
Roughly 440 people still needed outreach Monday, according to Sarah Hargrave, who oversees contact tracing in Alaska. That number rose to 850 by Thursday morning as more cases dribbled through the system. In all, the state had interviewed or attempted to reach 1,250 people as of Thursday.
The contact tracing delay may start in a long testing line, then a multi-day wait for a test result that then needs to get reported to public health officials before it shows up in a contact tracer’s system, Hargrave said.
Once they actually reach someone, the tracers contend with “a growing number of people that are really difficult to to talk with on the phone who are either very argumentative or in some cases, outright belligerent,” she said.
Along with 261 cases in Anchorage and another 34 in Eagle River, the state’s tally included 100 new cases in the Mat-Su cities of Palmer and Wasilla, 60 in Fairbanks and North Pole, 43 in Ketchikan, 35 in Homer, and 22 in Utqiagvik, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard.
No new deaths were reported Thursday. Health officials say at least 14 people died with the virus this month. In total, 427 Alaskans and 11 nonresidents have died with the virus.
There were 127 people hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday, as reported Thursday.
As of Thursday, 54.1% of eligible Alaskans 12 and up were fully vaccinated and 60.3% had at least one dose.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests out of total administered was 7.03%.
Reporter James Brooks contributed.