Alaska health officials are monitoring for the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that’s raising questions and concerns around the world, even as the state reported a continued decrease in both hospitalizations and new cases. The new variant has not yet been detected anywhere in the United States, including Alaska.
Alaska reported 730 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death over the weekend, while hospitalizations fell to 79 COVID-19 patients statewide by Monday.
Despite the encouraging case rate and hospitalization numbers, the new variant suddenly looms large. The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, was classified as a “Variant of Concern,” by the World Health Organization late last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Much about the new variant is unknown — it’s not clear yet whether it is more contagious like the delta variant is or if it makes people sicker, the Associated Press reported Monday.
“That is the big takeaway — there’s a lot more unknown in this space than what we do know,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said Monday.
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The variant, first detected in South Africa, was found through sequencing efforts when the country saw a sharp uptick in cases following a major decrease after a delta variant-driven surge, Zink said.
The delta variant currently makes up 99.9% of the roughly 300 cases the state’s virology lab processes weekly for genetic sequencing, according to Jayme Parker, chief of the Alaska Public Health Laboratories.
The omicron variant is markedly different from prior variants — it contains scores of potentially troubling mutations, for one — but the lab should still be able to detect it, Parker said.
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State health officials also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that anyone age 18 and older who is either six months after their last dose of an MRNA vaccine or two months after a Johnson & Johnson shot should get the booster.
Alaska health officials continue to stress the importance of getting vaccinated.
“We are really asking Alaskans to continue to do everything they can to slow down COVID in general,” Zink said. “And we know that the more people that are vaccinated, the more protection that we have, the less chance there are for variants, the less chance there is for spread, the healthier we all are.”
Alaska’s new COVID-19 cases have decreased significantly in recent days after high levels throughout the fall. The state reported 380 cases Saturday, 242 Sunday and 108 Monday. The state also reported an additional death over the weekend: a Wrangell man in his 60s. So far, 848 Alaska residents and 30 nonresidents have died from the the virus since the start of the pandemic.
Of people hospitalized statewide, roughly 8.3% had active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, a much smaller portion compared to a fifth or more of all patients listed as COVID-positive in September and October.
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Alaska was ranked 16th among states for its case rate over the last week per 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our case counts are dropping pretty considerably here in Alaska, which is really good news,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said during Monday’s press briefing.
South Africa also experienced a surge in cases that recently subsided, McLaughlin said. And in that country, the new variant is becoming the more dominant variant compared to delta.
Still, it’s too early to say what will happen in Alaska with the new variant, he said.
“But we do look to what’s happening in other countries as well as other states to help try and forecast what what we’re going to see here in Alaska,” he said. “And I think in the days and weeks ahead, we’ll be able to give you a better sense for that.”