Alaska health officials on Monday said they’ve detected the first cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19 among people who haven’t left the state, a sign the variant is likely spreading here already.
The Division of Public Health is now aware of five COVID-19 cases involving the omicron variant — including two among people who didn’t travel out of state, officials say.
The fact that those two cases don’t involve a history of recent out-of-state travel indicates that local transmission of omicron is starting to occur, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.
“I fully expect that these five cases represent a small subset of the total number of Omicron cases in Alaska,” McLaughlin said in an email Monday. “I also expect that we will start to see COVID case counts rise very soon in Alaska as Omicron takes a firm foothold in our state.”
The state reported Alaska’s first two cases linked to the variant, both involving people with travel history, in the past two weeks. The two non-travel cases come in addition to those. A fifth person couldn’t be reached, so their travel status is unknown, McLaughlin said. All five are Anchorage residents, he said.
The omicron variant is causing COVID-19 surges in the Lower 48 after quickly becoming the most prevalent variant driving new case counts in the U.S. British studies suggest omicron may cause milder illness than the delta variant but may be more transmissible and less often deterred by vaccines.
Health authorities recommend getting vaccinated, preferably with the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and getting a booster dose when eligible, McLaughlin said.
Other recommendations include a double-layered mask in public settings or an N95 for higher-risk settings; social distancing; avoiding crowds; making sure indoor spaces have good ventilation and air filtration; getting tested when experiencing symptoms (which for omicron can include sore throat and congestion); and notifying close contacts if you test positive.
For now, Alaska’s numbers are relatively low after case counts, hospitalizations and deaths surged in the fall.
Alaska health officials on Monday reported 794 new COVID-19 infections among residents over a five-day period that included the Christmas holiday. Another 54 cases were reported among nonresidents over that time.
The state reported no new deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 945 residents and 31 nonresidents have died from COVID-19.
Statewide hospitalizations of COVID-positive people remained about the same: 57 as of Sunday, accounting for 6.7% of the patients in hospitals now.
The new case numbers were likely smaller due to the holiday: Only 58 cases were reported for Saturday, which was Christmas Day, and 89 on Sunday, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. There were 246 new cases reported Wednesday, 294 on Thursday and 107 on Friday.
The state’s airport testing and vaccination clinics in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau will be closed Saturday, New Year’s Day. The state last week announced airport testing would end on Jan. 31 as part of an effort to encourage at-home testing.
More than 60% of Alaskans and military members 5 and older — 60.3% as of Monday — are now fully vaccinated. Just over 67% have received at least one dose of vaccine and 21.1% have received booster shots. Nationally, 77.3% of eligible people have received at least one dose.
The state’s test positivity rate was starting to inch up again, to 4.89% as of Monday from 3.31% on Dec. 16. The rate measures whether enough testing is occurring and can also indicate a rise in transmission rates.