More Alaskans are now hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic as surging coronavirus cases overwhelm some testing facilities, leading to long waits around the state.
The state on Tuesday also reported six recent deaths of people with the virus, including four residents and two nonresidents. The resident deaths involved an Anchorage woman in her 20s, an Anchorage woman in her 30s, an Anchorage man in his 70s and a Dillingham-area man in his 60s. The nonresidents who died were both men in their 70s in Anchorage.
In total, 431 Alaskans and 13 nonresidents have died with the virus.
By Tuesday, 152 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The previous hospitalizations record was 151, reached in December 2020, and was tied this past weekend.
For weeks, Alaska hospitals have been operating at an unsustainable level due to the combination of busy summer admissions, staff shortages and the growing surge in high-needs COVID-19 patients. On Monday, Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, described the current situation as a crisis and said the next two weeks would be critical in determining how badly hospital capacity would be affected.
A worst-case scenario would look like field hospitals stood up, postponed critical procedures and surgeries and an exhausted workforce, Kosin said.
The state reported 634 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, 601 of them residents. Alaska’s latest surge in cases and hospitalizations has been driven largely by the highly contagious delta variant.
Local officials in Juneau reported 72 cases on Tuesday alone, 63 residents and nine nonresidents. Juneau Public Health officials described several ongoing trends: some cases associated with a local mine; some cases on small and large cruise ships; household spread; and cases popping up from regular screening at congregate living facilities.
In the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Native Association said Tuesday that 37 people — mostly Utqiagvik residents — had tested positive, including 15 youths under age 18. All workers and visitors inside any of the association’s facilities, including the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital, are required to wear a “hospital grade procedure mask” due to the risks associated with the delta variant, which has emerged in the region.
The level of COVID-19 transmission around the state, especially in communities with lower vaccination rates, has triggered a wave of testing demand that’s overwhelming facilities, said Dr. Coleman Cutchins, state pharmacist. Turnaround times from testing labs remains about the same: 24 to 72 hours, with many results coming back within 48 hours.
But it’s taking hours to get tested in some places.
“What were seeing is a whole lot of people exposed,” Cutchins said Tuesday. “It’s overwhelming our testing sites, it’s overwhelming our hospitals, it’s overwhelming our doctors’ offices.”
Anchorage testing sites reported relatively short wait times until Monday, according to Christy Lawton, municipal public health director. That’s when the municipal sites collected about 1,700 tests -- the highest number since November. The busiest sites appeared to be in Eagle River and Muldoon, Lawton said. Test turnaround time is still around 24 hours, “which is great,” she said.
In Mat-Su, a popular Capstone Clinic drive-thru testing site at the old Sears building in Wasilla reported 4 1/2-hour waits on Monday, according to Capstone medical director Dr. Wade Erickson. Shifting to a triple-line format reduced waits to 90 minutes Tuesday, Erickson said.
“We’re at higher testing numbers than we were at during the peak in January and it came quickly,” he said. “It just sheerly overwhelmed our ability to upscale our employment force.”
Delays were also being reported in Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula.
“This was combination of the Foo Fighters, the state fair, school starting, all in the same two weeks, just a lot of big events going on,” Erickson said. “Some spike was expected, but it just overwhelmed the system in how fast it came.”
The communities with the lowest vaccination rates are experiencing the longest wait times, he and Cutchins said. Mat-Su is the least vaccinated region in the state, with just over 38% of eligible residents fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates on the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks are just under 50%.
Another factor in the long lines are unvaccinated people who work for employers requiring either vaccination or testing. Those people are adding to the testing pressure, and making it harder for people with symptoms to get tested quickly.
“We really encourage people with any symptom to get tested,” Cutchins said. “Please do not let a line deter you from that.”
Statewide, 61% of those ages 12 and up had at least one dose of the vaccine while nearly 55% were considered fully vaccinated.
On average over the past seven days, 7.56% of COVID-19 tests were returned positive in the state. Generally, anything over 5% is viewed as an indication there isn’t enough testing going on.
The seven-day test positivity rates in Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula reported Tuesday were 14% and 13%, respectively.
People should get tested, vaccinated or not, as they see any possible symptoms, Cutchins said. The state has information about testing sites, which include airports, but people with any symptoms should not use airport testing sites, he said.
The Municipality of Anchorage also offers information about testing sites on its online virus dashboard.
Juneau officials on Tuesday published a guide to help people know when to get tested:
• You’re sick: If you’re feeling even mildly ill with new symptoms like fatigue, chills, cough, fever or decreased sense of taste or smell, get tested.
• You’ve traveled: If you’re a traveler arriving in Juneau, take a test at the airport, avoid indoor public areas and crowded locations until results are back, and return to the airport for a follow-up test in three to five days.
• You’re a close contact: You’ve been within 6 feet of someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period during the person’s infectious period. A COVID-positive person is usually infectious starting two days before their test or before any symptoms that appear, whichever comes first.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported there were seven deaths in people with COVID-19 reported Tuesday. There were six.]