With many hospitals still in crisis, Alaska is now recording the highest case rate per capita of any U.S. state after surpassing its winter-level peak for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
According to a New York Times tracker updated Tuesday, Alaska’s average rate of daily new infections over the last week is more than double the national average — and higher than any state. The state on Tuesday reported 861 cases after recording more than 2,000 new cases in three days over the weekend.
While case counts and case rates don’t account for how many of the people who test positive for COVID-19 are symptomatic or severely ill, rising case counts are often followed weeks later by a similar uptick in hospitalizations and deaths.
The high volume of cases means the state is currently behind on data entry, which affects the ability to assess day-to-day trends, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, said in an interview Tuesday.
“That being said, regardless, we know that very high incidence rates are currently occurring across most of Alaska. And we’ll just have to keep watching and hopefully we’ll have a better sense for the trend in the next week or two,” he said.
Alaska’s continually high counts are a sign that the latest surge driven by the delta variant has not yet leveled off.
Alaska’s hospitals continue to operate under what were once unimaginable circumstances. Last week, the state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, announced it was shifting to crisis standards of care and rationing treatment due to a combination of staffing shortages and COVID-19 cases that accounted for about a third of the hospital’s patients.
Hospital patients have since died as a direct result of limited resources and impossible choices doctors have had to make, hospital administrators said Monday. It’s likely that Providence will remain in crisis mode for at least another two weeks, they said.
“Many states have more robust hospital capacity than we do in Alaska, and therefore, they might be less vulnerable to surges in COVID,” McLaughlin said.
The number of COVID-positive patients hospitalized as of Monday evening dipped slightly to 196 after hitting a record of 210 earlier this month. Hospitals say those numbers are likely an undercount of the true impact of COVID-19, since they don’t include some long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but still need hospital care.
Other hospitals in Anchorage and elsewhere are delaying non-urgent surgeries and restricting visitors. Rural hospitals are struggling to transfer patients for higher-level care.
Alaska’s COVID-19 death toll rose on Tuesday with the deaths of six Alaskans newly reported. In total, 465 residents and 15 nonresidents in the state have died with the virus since the start of the pandemic. Alaska’s overall death rate from the virus remains among the lowest in the nation, but health officials have said national comparisons are complicated by the state’s vulnerable health care system, and that deaths have been on the rise following increased case counts.
“Death tends to be a lagging indicator, and can lag as long as two to three or even four weeks behind cases,” McLaughlin said.
Because of a summer cyberattack, Alaska’s vital records section is backlogged on entering death data, which can partially explain why Alaska’s death rate remains low compared to other states, McLaughlin said. About 25% of all deaths in the state from May through August of this year have not yet been registered, he said.
Since July, the state has reported 76 COVID-19 deaths among Alaskans. Between May and June, when case counts were far lower, a total of 18 virus-related deaths among residents were reported.
As of Tuesday, 62.5% of Alaskans had received at least one dose of vaccine and 57.5% were fully vaccinated. Alaska ranked 32nd in the country for vaccination rates per 100,000.
The statewide seven-day rolling average for test positivity — positive results out of total performed — was 9.62% as of Tuesday. Health authorities say anything over 5% signals there’s not enough testing occurring.