Alaska News

Alaska reports 996 virus cases over 2 days in uptick likely caused by omicron, state epidemiologist says

COVID-19 cases in Alaska have again begun to rise, and the highly transmissible omicron variant is likely responsible, the state epidemiologist said Wednesday.

The state on Wednesday reported 996 new COVID-19 cases over two days as part of a 66% rise in new cases over the last week. Until this week, cases had been steadily declining for months after a deadly surge this fall.

“This rise in case counts is likely due in large part to omicron,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said, urging Alaskans to be “vigilant” about getting vaccinated, getting boosted when they’re eligible, and continuing to following non-pharmaceutical interventions like masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds.

Though just six omicron cases have officially been identified through lab sequencing efforts, McLaughlin said there are indications that many new infections can be attributed to the variant.

A weekend storm in Fairbanks shut down the state’s public health lab for the week, halting sequencing efforts and causing a delay in reports.

Despite that delay, McLaughlin said lab staff had noted that over half of a randomized batch of cases being sequenced last week had something called an “S gene target failure” that’s characteristic of the omicron variant and rarely seen with the delta variant.

Sequencing cases can take over a week, while “the S gene target failure is just a quick way to get a sense for what proportion of the cases we think are likely to be omicron,” McLaughlin explained.

Nationally, omicron is causing COVID-19 surges in the Lower 48 after quickly becoming the dominant variant driving new case counts in the U.S. On Tuesday, the United States broke its daily record for new cases.

Alaska reported its first two cases linked to the variant, both involving people with travel history, earlier this month. On Monday, three additional cases were reported, two of which involved people who hadn’t traveled out of state. A sixth case was identified earlier this week and is still being investigated.

Some studies suggest omicron may cause milder illness than the delta variant but may be more transmissible and less often deterred by vaccines — especially in people who have not received a booster dose.

McLaughlin said that of Alaska’s six identified omicron cases, one person was fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot, three were vaccinated but had not received their booster shots, one was unvaccinated and two were unreachable, so their vaccination status was unknown.

Three were symptomatic and none so far had been hospitalized, McLaughlin said.

The 996 new infections were identified in Alaska over a two-day period, and involved 944 residents and 52 nonresidents.

The state reported the deaths of an Anchorage woman in her 50s and an Anchorage man in his 60s. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 947 residents and 31 nonresidents have died from COVID-19.

Statewide hospitalizations of COVID-positive people dropped slightly: 52 by Wednesday — down from 57 by Monday — which accounted for 5.8% of the patients currently hospitalized.

More than 60% of Alaskans and military members 5 and older — 60.5% as of Wednesday — are now fully vaccinated. About two-thirds have received at least one dose of vaccine and a fifth have received booster shots. Nationally, 77.3% of eligible people have received at least one dose.

The state’s test positivity rate rose to 7.58% on Wednesday, up from 4.89% on Monday. The rate measures whether enough testing is occurring and can also indicate a rise in transmission rates.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.