Alaska reported six more deaths in people with COVID-19 on Wednesday, over 800 new cases of the virus, and yet another record for the number of COVID-positive people sick enough to need hospital care.
The highly infectious delta variant driving up cases around the country is behind Alaska’s ongoing surge that’s overwhelming everything from COVID-19 testing and contact tracing to hospitals where some providers say they’ve operated at unsustainable levels for weeks.
The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus rose to 197 as of Tuesday, or more than 21% of total patients, the state reported Wednesday. That’s up from 186 reported Tuesday following an increase of 12% over the Labor Day weekend.
The deaths involved two Anchorage women in their 70s, an Anchorage man in his 70s, an Eagle River man in his 60s, a Kenai woman in her 70s, and an out-of-state man in his 70s.
The state also reported another 841 new cases of the virus, 808 in Alaskans and 33 in nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. That’s the third-highest single-day tally since the pandemic began in March 2020. The second-highest was set Friday with 888. The state reported 906 cases in early December.
With vaccines available, Alaska doctors say, they never thought they’d see the current levels of transmission and disease filling beds throughout the state.
“Right now, our hospitals are stretched incredibly thin,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said during a briefing Wednesday.
Alaska Regional Hospital on Wednesday became the latest in a growing list of facilities around the state to sharply restrict visitors over COVID-19 concerns, according to a hospital spokesperson. The hospital is pausing all visitation except for several specific exemptions: children under 18 can have one caregiver with them; women in labor can have one partner; and families can visit patients who are dying. Providence Alaska Medical Center announced a return to a similarly strict visitor policy late last week.
Statewide, more than 21% of ER visits were COVID-related, as reported Wednesday. COVID-positive people made up nearly half the patients at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Monday, about a third of those at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, and about a third at Soldotna’s Central Peninsula Hospital on Wednesday.
Alaska’s hospital statistics don’t include long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but continue to need care, hospital officials said this week, so they underestimate the true impact of the virus on capacity. COVID-positive patients tend to stay longer than others once admitted — an average of three weeks at Mat-Su.
In North Idaho this week, an overwhelming surge in hospitalizations plus severe staff shortages forced hospitals there to enact crisis standards of care. Such guidelines, considered a worst-case scenario, help hospitals make difficult decisions including rationing care.
State officials and hospital administrators here say they are watching the situation closely for signs of deteriorating resources in the state, including staff levels and bed and ventilator availability.
Health officials say COVID-19 is “everywhere”: moving through families, schools and businesses as well as big events like the Alaska State Fair or concerts. They encourage everyone to wear masks in indoor settings where transmission is high and get vaccinated.
Two villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta — Emmonak and Kwethluk — announced lockdowns this week after multiple cases were reported in those communities. By Wednesday, at least 39 active cases had been reported in Kwethluk and seven in Emmonak, according to a spokeswoman with the Yukon-Kuskowkim Health Corporation.
Unvaccinated people account for most of the surging hospitalizations that are taxing health-care systems in Alaska, data shows. Vaccinated people are getting infected, albeit at lower rates; they generally avoid more serious illness compared to unvaccinated people.
Nationally, unvaccinated people are about 17 times more likely to get hospitalized than vaccinated people, Zink said. And once hospitalized, vaccines tend to protect people from more severe effects.
In one week in late August, 26 out of 136 COVID-positive people hospitalized in Alaska were vaccinated, according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. Of 33 COVID-19 patients in the ICU, five were vaccinated. Out of 18 on ventilators, one was vaccinated.
Unvaccinated COVID-19 patients in Alaska hospitals are far younger than those who are vaccinated, and exhibit fewer underlying health conditions yet get seriously ill from the virus, officials say.
At one Anchorage hospital, the median unvaccinated age was 44, while for vaccinated patients it was 66, Zink said. Younger, unvaccinated people sickened with COVID-19 are also waiting longer to seek hospital care.
“So it’s really becoming this tale of two worlds,” she said.
Still, the state’s vaccination rates are slowing. Alaska last week saw a 21% increase in vaccinations compared to a month ago, down from a 46% increase the week before, according to state data.
A state health department survey in June and July found that only 15% of just over 900 unvaccinated respondents said they definitely or probably planned to get the shot. Another 42% answered “definitely not” and were more likely to see themselves at no risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Last winter, when COVID-19 vaccinations first became available, Alaska led the nation in shots administered per capita. Much of that early success was attributed to a strong tribal health presence in many rural communities, plus high interest by healthcare workers and older Alaskans and who were particularly vulnerable.
By summer, the state had fallen behind. As of Wednesday, Alaska ranked 33rd among states for per capita vaccination rates. About 61% of eligible Alaskans had gotten at least one dose of vaccine and 55.8% were fully vaccinated.
People continue to report long testing lines, officials say. Contact tracing efforts are also so backed up that some COVID-positive people might never get a call at all.
The state’s seven-day average test positivity rate — positive tests out of total performed — was 8.17%. Health officials say anything over 5% indicates the need for more testing.