State health department officials said last week said more people died in Alaska, from COVID-19 or other causes, during a major virus surge this fall compared to any other point in the pandemic.
Not only did deaths associated with COVID-19 increase significantly after a highly transmissible variant of the virus rose to prominence in Alaska, but overall deaths — including some that were not recorded as COVID-19-related — increased as well.
The latest data offers insight into broader impacts of the pandemic on Alaskans’ health.
“Excess deaths” are a measure of deaths that occur beyond what is expected. In 2021 through October, there were 766 excess deaths in Alaska, compared to 401 in all of 2020, state health officials said during a recent call with the public.
Those numbers reflect both COVID-19 deaths as well as “deaths that may have occurred due to changes in health behaviors, including delaying preventive care or due to a strain in health care resources,” said Rosa Avila, deputy chief of health analytics and vital records with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Those deaths spiked during the state’s two COVID-19 surges in winter 2020 and fall 2021, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.
That data “corroborates and provides additional information about the fact that COVID really is unfortunately impacting many Alaskans,” she said.
Alaska’s data shows more excess deaths occurring during the fall 2021 surge compared to last winter’s surge, diverging from broader U.S. trends: Excess death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a larger spike nationally in overall deaths last winter compared to this fall.
Both Alaska and the country as a whole reported more virus-related deaths in 2021 than in 2020.
Alaska’s excess deaths included COVID-19 deaths, which rose significantly after the highly transmissible delta variant emerged in summer 2021, state health department officials concluded in a recently published review of virus deaths from January 2020 through September 2021.
“We can see that we had a higher mortality rate with this last surge than we had with the previous surge overall,” Zink said.
Alaska’s COVID-19 cases began rising in late July as the delta variant took hold in the state. A spike in virus-related hospitalizations followed, and COVID-19 deaths began to increase soon afterward.
So far, September and October 2021 have been the deadliest months of the pandemic, state data shows: 282 Alaskans died from COVID-19 complications during those two months alone, reflecting about a third of all 853 resident virus deaths in the state since spring 2020.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the highest COVID-19 death rates have occurred among men, people with underlying health conditions and older Alaskans, health department officials concluded in their review of virus deaths.
Roughly two-thirds of adult Alaskans are considered at an increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19 because of an underlying condition, such as obesity or a history of smoking, according to the health department.
Chronic cardiovascular diseases and diabetes were most common among those who died with underlying conditions, followed by chronic respiratory disease and neurologic conditions.
“I hear a lot from patients that think they are too ill to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Zink said. “I would argue that they are too ill to get COVID.”
Though the new report did not include information about the vaccination status of those who died, state data continues to show lower COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates among people who are fully vaccinated against the virus compared to those who are not.
The latest count of vaccine breakthrough deaths in the state is 99, said Eric Mooring, an epidemiologist and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assignee to the Alaska Section of Epidemiology. That’s less than an eighth of all virus-related deaths in Alaska.
It’s important to take into account other factors — including age and underlying health conditions — when looking at COVID-19 deaths among those who are vaccinated, Mooring said. Older and more medically vulnerable Alaskans were more likely to have more serious illness from a breakthrough infection.
The median age of unvaccinated Alaskans hospitalized with COVID-19 this fall was about 14 years younger than those who were fully vaccinated, according to an earlier report from the state health department.
Overall, “our analyses continue to show that during the delta era, unvaccinated Alaskans are about 10 times more likely to die from COVID compared to fully vaccinated Alaskans,” Mooring said.
Recommendations in the report for avoiding future COVID-19 deaths include becoming fully vaccinated, controlling underlying health conditions and getting booster shots when eligible.