Alaska on Tuesday reported another 871 virus cases, three deaths and an elevated number of COVID-related hospitalizations as delayed shipments of a drug used to treat the illness have started arriving in the state.
Of the 561 COVID-19 deaths of Alaska residents over the course of the pandemic so far, 150 occurred from the start of August up to now — long after vaccines became widely available to the public. That means a little over a quarter of virus-related deaths among Alaskans have occurred in the past two months.
The three deaths reported Tuesday involved an Anchorage woman in her 40s, a man from the Northwest Arctic Borough in his 70s and a Soldotna man in his 70s.
The current surge in new cases has far outpaced last winter’s peak and is fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. Alaska’s per-capita case rate over the past week remains the highest in the country, according to CDC data, though its per-capita death rate over the last seven days ranks 20th in the U.S.
Statewide, 194 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday. That number doesn’t include some patients who may no longer be infectious with COVID-19 but are still sick enough to need hospital care.
The overall hospitalization number is down slightly from Monday’s near-record tally of 216 COVID-positive hospital patients, but it’s likely not yet a meaningful drop, said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
“Until we see a trend that’s going down over at least a week, I just expect it to be up and down as we’ve been seeing all along,” Monk said Tuesday.
High COVID-19 hospitalizations have overburdened the state’s health care system in recent weeks, pushing a majority of facilities around Alaska to have crisis standards of care activated to help with prioritizing care for patients while resources are stretched thin.
Alaska is one of the few states around the country to enable statewide crisis standards of care. Idaho did so last month. Crisis standards, when applied in a worst-case scenario, help doctors make difficult decisions to prioritize treatment for patients most likely to survive. They also provide legal liability protections for providers forced to adopt lower standards of care.
How hospitals and other facilities are using crisis standards tends to vary. For some, the shift is more of a precaution in case the pressure placed on staffing and other resources gets worse. For others, the move involves triage committees to aid in treatment decisions, or guidance on how to allocate oxygen when it’s in short supply.
Some of the nearly 500 health care workers contracted by the state to bring relief to hospitals with pinched staffing started arriving in Alaska last week, with more on the way.
Alaska on Tuesday also reported its highest percent positivity number so far, with 9.86% of tests returning positive results on average for the past seven days. Health experts say anything over 5% means broader testing is needed.
Antibody shipments arrive after delay
After a roughly weeklong delay in shipments of a COVID-19 treatment drug from the federal government, facilities have now received the late shipments and have boosted their supply, state pharmacist Coleman Cutchins said Tuesday.
The state is continuing to receiving more monoclonal antibody treatments, a drug that’s shown to keep some people with COVID-19 who are at high risk for severe complications out of the hospital when treatment is sought early on in their illness.
At a warehouse in South Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon, Janey Say, supply chain director with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, packed up nearly 2,000 vials of the treatment that would be shipped out by plane to nine communities around the state by late afternoon.
“Because it is a precious resource, we only ship a few days of the week, because we don’t want it sitting in airports,” she said.
Say said that currently, every community around the state that requests the treatment is able to receive shipments, which she considers very lucky.
“I do have some firsthand knowledge that my father did get (monoclonal antibody therapy) when he had COVID, and he went through eight rounds, and it kept him off a ventilator. So, it’s very good — it definitely helps people heal,” she said.
While the shipment issue does appear to be resolving and there haven’t been any delays since, the system is fragile, Cutchins said. The drugs could become unavailable at any time, he said, which underscores how critical vaccination and other COVID-19 measures to reduce disease risks.