Alaska health officials on Friday reported a whopping 3,640 new COVID-19 cases over two days, a record surge that’s not yet overloading hospitals but is forcing health workers to stay home.
The sudden rise in new cases is linked to the arrival of the omicron variant, which appears more mild than prior variants but spreads incredibly quickly, health officials say. They continue to urge vaccination and boosters as the best way to avoid severe illness.
The state also reported one additional death from the virus and an uptick in hospitalizations to 70 patients, from 56 reported Wednesday, after patient numbers held fairly steady over the past month. The person who died was a man in his 70s who lived in the area of Hoonah-Angoon and Yakutat.
But hospital representatives say there’s already a different kind of pressure: As cases skyrocket, more health care workers are calling in sick. Even if they don’t feel terrible, they still need to stay out of work for at least five days after a positive COVID-19 test or a close contact.
“Monday, it’s like, ‘OK, it doesn’t feel like it’s totally hit yet.’ Then it’s overnight — all of a sudden, we’re starting to hear sick calls coming in,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Anchorage residents accounted for more than 2,000 cases reported in Friday’s two-day tally.
The new daily-record case counts represent an almost 120% increase over the nearly 1,600 total cases reported for Monday and Tuesday: 1,784 resident cases were reported for Wednesday and another 1,750 for Thursday, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The prior record, set during the previous surge, was 1,719 in September.
The state reported another 106 new cases over two days involving nonresidents.
After the fall surge driven by the delta variant, cases, hospitalizations and deaths gradually trended downward. But that trend — at least for new cases — is being upended now by a dramatic climb here that mirrors patterns across the country as the omicron variant spreads at unprecedented speeds.
In the week after Christmas, Alaska saw a 262% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases compared to the seven-day average in the previous reporting period.
The explosive increase appears alarming, but some experts recommend the focus should instead be on COVID-19 hospital admissions, which aren’t climbing as fast.
Many people, especially those who are vaccinated and boosted or have had COVID-19 before, experience mild symptoms and recover quickly, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. Even people hospitalized with the variant aren’t needing such lengthy care as they did during prior surges driven by other variants.
“The majority of people in Alaska have been vaccinated. Many, many more people have had COVID,” Zink said, adding that prior infection seems to provide some protection. “I do think the cases now are really different from even the past wave and way, way different from two years ago when nobody was vaccinated and nobody had seen the virus.”
As of Friday, 68% of eligible Alaskans and military members or veterans had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and just over 60% were fully vaccinated. Only 22.6% had received booster shots.
The spike in Alaska comes even as Anchorage residents and elected officials raise concerns that accurate case numbers may be suppressed by a growing reliance on scarce at-home test kits — which aren’t logged in state data — and inconsistently open PCR drive-thru testing sites.
The state’s test positivity rate, a number that measures whether there’s enough testing occurring and can indicate rapid transmission, spiked to 18.35% by Friday, a record.
State health officials in an update Friday said protective measures against omicron remain the same as for the other COVID-19 variants: masking, handwashing, distancing and testing. Public health officials also recommended self-testing before and after travel and large gatherings.
In a guide on how to treat COVID-19 at home, the state health department recommends people who test positive for COVID-19 or experience symptoms talk to their health care provider, contact a Public Health Center or call the state COVID Helpline at 907-646-3322 to learn about possible treatment options.
“If you test positive for COVID-19, your first priority is to isolate yourself from others so you don’t spread the virus. Next, quickly let your close contacts know that they may have been exposed to the virus as well,” an update Friday said. “COVID-19 is highly contagious. Cases are on the rise in Alaska. There’s no shame in having tested positive. But, working together with close contacts, we can interrupt the virus from spreading further.”
Any rising hospitalization numbers are concerning at this point given growing staffing concerns, Kosin said.
He said numbers in the 50 to 60 range are “manageable” compared to the delta-driven surge that ramped up over the summer into fall, when record hospitalizations of COVID-positive patients approached 250.
But if a significant portion of the workforce is forced to stay home simultaneously, even relatively low patient counts can be crippling, he said.
“We really don’t know how many hospitalizations this is going to produce. Right now, hospitalizations are holding steady,” Kosin said. “If that starts to take off and we continue to have this upward trend in staff call-outs, that is a worst-case scenario and very, very different from delta in a negative way.”
Hospitals in Seattle, normally a destination for Alaska patients who need higher care, are already nearing a “crisis situation” as hospital leaders, doctors and public health officials said Thursday, according to the Seattle Times.
In October, the state enacted crisis standards of care for about two-thirds of Alaska’s health care facilities. The standards can help prioritize scarce resources — staff or equipment — plus provide liability protection.
The standards remain in effect, meaning hospitals that need to use them could once more, Kosin said.
“Three months ago we were at a critical point,” he said. “You come up for air and you think it’s going to be OK for a while, and then this is coming right at us.”