Alaska continued to lead the nation in new per-capita COVID-19 case rates on Wednesday, but also reported a two-day decline in the number of people with the virus who are hospitalized.
The state on Wednesday reported three recent deaths tied to COVID-19 involving Anchorage residents, two men in their 70s and one in his 60s. A total of 564 Alaskans have died with the virus as well as another 21 out-of-state residents here.
Alaska’s recent per capita death rate — 25 deaths per 100,000 — puts the state in the middle of the pack nationally over the past week. Over the duration of the pandemic, Alaska has the third-lowest overall death rate among U.S. states.
More than 150 of Alaska’s deaths 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.
[Rural Alaskans are at greater risk as COVID swamps faraway urban hospitals]
The state’s COVID-19 surge is being driven by the highly infectious delta variant, which caused cases and hospitalizations in the Lower 48 to spike before leveling off and declining in recent weeks.
A top state health official said it’s possible infections and hospitalizations here may be peaking, though that remains to be definitively seen.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that cases, hospitalizations, emergency department visits and now deaths are all decreasing in the United States “for the first time in a long time,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said during a briefing Wednesday. “So this is really good news.”
Alaska remains the highest in the nation for new case rate, at four times the national average, and below the national average for vaccination rates.
But there may also be good news here based on a decrease in case rates, McLaughlin said, though it still remains to be seen if there’s a drop in cases based on the date of onset, which is the best indicator.
“We’ll probably get a better sense for this, but my suspicion is that we’ve at least leveled off and we might be starting to see a true sign of a decline from last week,” he said.
The state health department was regularly reporting daily case counts over 1,000 as of last week due in part to a large backlog of data. The state on Wednesday reported 867 new cases, including 10 among nonresidents.
Alaska on Saturday announced that crisis standards of care were activated for 20 health care facilities to provide support for hospitals contending with high numbers of COVID-19 patients and low staff numbers.
The number of Alaskans hospitalized with the virus also dropped fairly significantly this week, from a near-record of 216 over the weekend to 194 on Monday and 184 on Tuesday, as reported Wednesday by the state.
The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association has seen a decline in hospitalizations for Monday and Tuesday, but that may be an anomaly rather than a trend, according to senior vice president Jeannie Monk.
“We’ll see if it continues,” she said. It also remains very difficult to transfer patients from rural communities, where clinicians are “literally spending hours on the phone trying to find a facility to take them.”
Still, the hospital representatives on Wednesday’s daily statewide call hosted by the state health department sounded less discouraged than before, Monk said.
Many are reporting they’re seeing the new federally contracted health workers start to show up for orientation “and they’re starting to help,” she said. “That’s really addressing some of the critical staffing shortages.”
[Are Alaska’s hospitals short-staffed over COVID-19 vaccination mandates? Not yet.]
Just over 250 of 470 workers requested by contract have been deployed to hospitals, and 142 are “in the process” in Anchorage, are being matched to their location and will be deploying out shortly, according to Heidi Hedberg, the state’s public health director.
A total of 395 workers are now in Alaska and another 142 are still finishing paperwork, including emergency licensing, before arriving, Hedberg said.
She also heard good feedback from hospitals, she said. “They feel the relief. Their staff are able to have smaller ratios ... they are incredibly thankful for these relief workers coming up.”
The state’s test positivity rate hit a new record as of Wednesday: 9.97% of the tests performed came back positive, data showed. Health experts say anything over 5% can show there’s not enough testing.