COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to fall statewide on Tuesday, prompting optimism from the head of Alaska’s hospital association after months of high stress and strain on health care facilities.
“It feels like we’re at a turning point,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, referencing a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the last week and a half.
“We’re feeling like the situation (in hospitals) is becoming manageable in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time,” he said.
There were 131 people hospitalized with COVID-19 by Tuesday, state dashboard data showed, with about 14.4% of the state’s hospitalized patients considered to have active cases. That’s a significant decrease from a high of more than 200 people hospitalized on average since September.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital announced Tuesday that it was deactivating crisis standards in place since the beginning of October. The return to a less pressured “contingency” standard of care was a reflection of reduced hospitalization rates, in the facility and statewide, that improved capacity and made it easier to transfer patients to other hospitals when needed, Foundation Health Partners said in a statement.
The impacts of the most recent virus surge are still being borne out: Alaska on Tuesday reported another 28 virus-related deaths identified through a review of death certificates. Twenty-two of those fatalities occurred in October, with another five in September and one in August.
On Monday, the state reported 53 virus deaths, most of which had occurred in September.
The state health department also reported 387 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday. Case counts have declined from the record highs Alaska saw a few weeks ago, but numbers are still relatively high when looking at the pandemic overall.
Alaska’s seven-day case rate — at 546 per 100,000, or about 3 1/2 times the national average — continues to be the highest among U.S. states, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[New Alaska data traces disproportionate experiences of COVID-19 by race, gender and vaccination status]
Starting in July, a virus surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant caused a sharp rise in hospitalizations and deaths around Alaska and stretched the health care system to a breaking point. September and October 2021 were the deadliest months of the pandemic so far, state data showed as of Tuesday.
And while crisis standards of care were still officially activated at approximately 20 of Alaska’s hospitals, Kosin said that declining COVID-positive patient counts meant that facilities have not had to act on those standards in at least the last week and a half.
The shift to crisis standards is often seen as a worst-case scenario. They are meant to provide both guidance and liability protection for health care workers operating with extremely scarce resources.
“If this trend continues to hold, we would expect that crisis standards of care would be deactivated,” Kosin said.
The latest case count is also part of a downward trajectory in cases that Alaska has seen recently after several weeks of plateauing daily numbers.
[Alaska coronavirus Q&A: Answering parents’ questions about vaccinating children]
The newly reported deaths involved: a Kotzebue woman in her 60s; six men from Fairbanks, including two in their 80s or older, two in their 70s and two in their 50s; an Anchorage man in his 70s; an Anchorage woman in her 60s; eight women from Wasilla, including three in their 80s or older, one in her 70s, three in their 60s and one in her 50s; six people from Palmer, including three men in their 80s or older, a man and a woman in their 70s and a woman in her 60s; a Soldotna man in his 60s; a Homer man in his 80s; a woman from the Dillingham Census Area in her 50s; a Kodiak woman in her 80s or older; and a Juneau man in his 60s.
COVID-19 deaths don’t always show up immediately in the state’s virus data. Sometimes they show up only after health officials review death certificates, a process that can sometimes take several weeks.
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, health officials say.
The portion of COVID-19 tests returning positive results was 7.69% as of Tuesday based on a seven-day rolling average, a drop from a peak of 10.9% in mid-October.