Alaska broke several daily records for COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths on Friday, but public health officials said the high numbers were due at least in part to data backlogs.
Data entry backlogs meant the roughly 1,800 new cases reported Friday were inflated by several hundred older cases, health officials said.
“That does not diminish the fact that we continue to see tremendous COVID spread in our communities,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a call with news media.
The 41 Alaska resident deaths from COVID-19 reported Friday occurred primarily last month, officials said. A few took place even earlier this year and hadn’t yet been included in the tally because of a cyberattack that hobbled the state’s death certificate record keeping system.
But, a record 217 hospitalizations reported Friday were not part of the data backlog and represented the growing number of people sick enough with COVID-19 to need hospital care in Alaska.
Over the last month, the state has recorded its “highest incidence of cases we’ve ever experienced, straining our public health infrastructure, our hospitals, our businesses and our economy,” Zink said.
The majority of the 44 deaths reported Friday — which included 41 residents and three nonresidents — were fatalities that occurred in August and were identified through a standard review of death certificates, officials said Friday.
Government agencies rely on death certificates to report COVID-19 deaths. If a physician judges that a COVID-19 infection contributed to a person’s death, it is included on the death certificate and ultimately counted in the state’s official toll, according to DHSS.
Some deaths get reported directly to the state, while other deaths are less clear-cut than others, and take longer to verify, said epidemiologist Dr. Louisa Castrodale.
“Hospitals will call us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve had this unfortunate death, we really think it’s COVID, and we’re reporting it to you,’” she explained.
“Hospitals will also call us and say, ‘Hey, we have this individual who died. There’s a lot going on with this person, we’re not really sure what the provider is going to ultimately put on the death certificate.’ So for those, we wait,” she said.
Ultimately, every single COVID-19 death the state reports has a death certificate that list COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death, and each undergoes a rigorous verification process, Castrodale said.
About a dozen of the deaths reported Friday occurred in the spring; for these, reporting was delayed by a May cyberattack that targeted the state health department, leaving many of its systems offline for months, officials said.
Continually high numbers of COVID-19 patients continue to overwhelm health care facilities around the state.
Record hospitalizations — and long ER wait times
By Friday, a state dashboard was reporting a new record of 217 people hospitalized around the state with COVID-19 — higher than at any point in the pandemic, and far above last winter’s peak.
Hospitals say their 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.
Earlier this week, state officials announced they would implement crisis standards of care statewide, a worst-case scenario that forces hospitals to ration care due to resource and staffing limitations.
Hospitals around the state continue to report lengthy emergency room wait times, delayed procedures, and limited transfers, and in at least one case, the death of a patient who was unable to access timely care.
The vast majority of Alaska’s cases, hospitalizations and death have been among people who are unvaccinated.
In August in Alaska, state data showed that residents were 8.3 times less likely to require hospitalization if they were vaccinated than if they were unvaccinated, Zink said Friday.
Friday’s new record of 1,793 new virus cases — including 1,735 among residents and 58 nonresidents — followed Thursday’s previous record count of 1,330 cases plus seven deaths.
A few hundred of the cases reported Friday were from positive test results last week and the week before as well as a few from even before that, Castrodale said. She estimated that once the state is through its backlog they expect to see roughly 1,000 cases a day.
As the state has found ways to automate newer cases, they’ve been able to dig into older case reports and catch up, Castrodale said.
The lags in data reporting make comparing day-to-day tallies challenging, and Zink said it can be more helpful to look at the overall trend each week. She emphasized that throughout the month of September the state saw its highest number of cases ever.
The lags also stem from a variety of places, officials said, including certain overwhelmed testing facilities sending all their results for several days at once, as well as a limited staff amid a crush of new case.
“There’s only so many people we have on the team, and so we’re doing our best to get it in,” Zink said.
Alaska’s case rate per capita remains the highest in the nation — and about three times higher than the national average, according to a New York Times tracker.
Statewide, 9.23% of tests conducted over the last week returned positive results.
Among eligible Alaskans 12 and older, 62.8% had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while 58.5% were considered fully vaccinated by Thursday.
The deaths involved residents from across the state, including 11 from Anchorage, six from Wasilla, four from Fairbanks, three from Ketchikan, three from Juneau, two from Soldotna, two from Bethel, one from Homer, one from North Pole, one from Tok, one from Big Lake, one from Petersburg, one from Palmer, one from Kenai, one from Willow, one from a small community in the Northwest Arctic Borough, and one from Sitka.
Fairbanks also recorded three nonresident deaths.
Of those who died, nearly half were in their 70s or older. Fourteen were in their 50s or 60s, two were in their 40s, two were in their 30s, and two were in their 20s.
In total, 514 residents and 18 nonresidents in the state have died from COVID since the start of the pandemic.