Alaska on Wednesday reported its second-highest daily tally of COVID-19 cases as statewide virus hospitalizations reached a new record high for the second day in a row.
There were 801 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday statewide, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. The only time Alaska recorded more cases in one day was Dec. 4, with 906 cases.
Widespread transmission means it is difficult to pinpoint specific outbreaks, a state epidemiologist said during a public information call Wednesday.
“COVID is everywhere,” said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state health department. “Events where there are people in close proximity to other people, that’s where we’re seeing transmission happen. And when there is so much activity, people can have three or four exposures ... and it might not be clear where their source of COVID was.”
The last time case numbers and hospitalizations had risen to the levels Alaska is seeing now, the state was in a much different situation with the pandemic: In early December, COVID-19 vaccines weren’t yet widely available. City leaders in Anchorage — where virus numbers largely drive statewide trends — at the time were more inclined to respond to rising case numbers with pandemic restrictions, and hospitals weren’t tending to as many non-COVID patients as they do in summer.
Now, the highly contagious delta variant is spreading across Alaska and accounts for nearly all recent virus cases, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, said during Wednesday’s call. Nationally, “about 99% of all of the cases that are sequenced right are coming back positive for the delta variant,” he said.
The delta variant spreads more easily than the original strain, which partially explains Alaska’s latest surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
By Wednesday, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association was reporting at least 166 people hospitalized with COVID-19 around the state — higher than at any point in the pandemic, including previous surges. On Tuesday, the state reported 152 hospitalized with COVID-19, and over the weekend, 151.
Health officials say Alaska hospitals continue to operate under unsustainable levels of stress, citing severe staff shortages and the recent influx in COVID-19 patients as causing considerable capacity challenges. Hospitals are reporting lengthy ER wait times, sporadic surgery postponements and an exhausted, burnt-out workforce.
In an interview this week, Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said the association is urging communities to enact universal masking requirements in indoor settings as a way to help support health care workers and reduce spread.
“Shutting down the economy and trying to implement any kind of mass closures? That’s not something that we’re at all considering or talking about,” Kosin said. “It’s the simple, practical steps that people already know how to do (like masking) that they can do in a way that’s not interfering with their lives — and it’s something that can happen immediately.”
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has said repeatedly that he will not require masks in the city or implement any restrictions such as capacity limits.
During the current surge, hospitals say they are seeing patients who are sicker and younger than during previous surges. Most recent COVID-19 hospitalizations have also occurred among people who are unvaccinated. In July, 80% of virus-related hospitalizations involved people who were not fully vaccinated.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a news conference streamed last week on Facebook, said vaccination remains the best solution to the ongoing crisis but stopped short of urging vaccinations, saying Alaskans should talk to their doctors about decisions related to their health.
Dunleavy also said his administration is taking steps to increase the number of people who can treat COVID-19 patients and protect hospital capacity by focusing on speeding the licensing process for health care workers, and seeking federal contracts for more workers.
Four recent virus-related resident deaths were also recorded Wednesday, involving three Anchorage men — one in his 40s, one in his 70s and another who was 80 or older — and a woman from the Bethel Census Area in her 40s. In all, 435 Alaskans and 13 nonresidents have died since the pandemic arrived in Alaska in spring 2020.
In the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Native Association said Wednesday that 63 people — nearly all Utqiagvik residents — had tested positive. 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.
In Anchorage, amid a communitywide spike in cases, more firefighters are calling in sick with COVID-19, the Anchorage Fire Department said, though specifics were scarce.
”Our workforce is a cross section of our community, and the result of that is an increase in cases within our employees,” assistant chief Alex Boyd said. “We have seen an increase in responders calling in sick with symptoms and an increase in members taking COVID tests as a result of routine pre-work health screening.”
The department did not answer how many cases have been reported among staff, or how many are currently active and in which fire stations.
A rise in use of sick leave time is not having an adverse impact on fire department responses, and no services have been reduced, Boyd said. The department is “benefiting from a high workforce vaccination rate among our first responders,” though the department did not say what the vaccination rate is.
The Anchorage Police Department isn’t seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases or time off among officers that would affect operations, deputy chief Gerard Asselin said. If that did happen, a plan is in place to shift officers on details like traffic and school officers to answer patrol calls, he said.
The department isn’t keeping track of the vaccination rate among officers.
By Wednesday, about 61% of Alaskans 12 and older had received at least one vaccine dose, and 55% were considered fully vaccinated.
Of all tests conducted over the last week, 7.5% came back positive.
Daily News reporter Michelle Theriault Boots contributed.