Alaska reported more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases over the last five days, and hospitals statewide continue to report growing staffing challenges. However, the virus is so far not driving up patient admissions the same way it did in past surges.
The previous delta surge in Alaska brought hundreds of sick patients to the state’s hospitals in short succession, many requiring long stays. The omicron variant, which has been shown to be less severe but more contagious, is instead causing more strain on hospitals as a result of staff becoming infected or exposed and needing to stay home, according to Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association president Jared Kosin.
More than 250 health care workers were out on Tuesday, either with COVID-19 or a recent exposure, Kosin said.
“The universal theme here: Staffing is tight everywhere,” Kosin said, although he added the issue is worse in some facilities than others.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are trending up, he said. Still, the current situation at hospitals is not as severe as it was during the previous surge in the fall.
“So far, compared to when we were at our worst in delta, we’re definitely not there,” Kosin said. “But we’re still waiting to see if it’s going to pick up even more.”
By Wednesday, 116 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state. That’s far below a peak of nearly 250 hospitalizations reported during the delta-driven surge last fall, but an increase from the 87 patients reported at the end of last week.
Health officials say the likely reason that hospitalizations remain lower than during previous surges is that omicron appears to be generally milder for most people, especially those who are fully vaccinated and boosted against the virus.
Omicron typically “looks more like the flu where people are sick, they don’t feel well for five to six days, and then they recover,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, during a call with members of the media and the public on Wednesday.
That means that hospitals are so far seeing fewer patients requiring intensive care, and less death associated with the illness.
But the variant also is also highly transmissible, and the sheer number of infections in the state has led to a slow but steady rise in hospitalizations in the state, mostly among people who are unvaccinated or at a higher risk of severe illness due to their health or age, she said.
“This is different to the prior surges”
Over the last five days, there were 10,202 new COVID-19 cases reported statewide.
Among residents, that breaks down to 2,609 cases reported Saturday, 2,064 on Sunday, 1,333 on Monday, 1,283 on Tuesday and 2,673 cases reported Wednesday. There were an additional 240 nonresident cases reported in the same time frame.
[US faces wave of omicron deaths in coming weeks, models say]
At Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, almost all areas of the hospital are experiencing challenges with having enough staff, said spokeswoman Shirley Young. The hospital is pulling outpatient staff to help with inpatients and the hospital’s emergency department is seeing a high number of patients, including a big increase in people coming in with COVID-19, the flu and other respiratory illnesses, she said.
“This is different to the prior surges, as many people chose to stay home unless their symptoms became very severe,” Young said.
At nearby Providence Alaska Medical Center, more staff are out this week than last and the emergency department is very busy, according to spokesman Mikal Canfield.
While the number of COVID-19 patients is increasing, the number of patients who need to go to the intensive care unit is not, he said.
The increase in COVID-19 patients at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital has been gradual, but the increase in employees unable to work because of a COVID-19 infection has been dramatic.
The number of staff out at Foundation Health Partners, which operates Fairbanks Memorial Hospital nearly doubled from 38 on Jan. 12 to 63 by Wednesday, said spokeswoman Kelly Atlee. On top of the staff absent because of infections, more are out for other reasons like exposure, they are waiting for test results or other, non-COVID-19-related reasons she said.
State surpasses 1,000 COVID-19 deaths
About 91% of specimens collected a little over a week ago and were sequenced this week in Alaska could be linked back to omicron, up from around half of all cases as of around Christmas, according to Jayme Parker, who heads up the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory in Fairbanks.
Zink said the good news was that in East Coast states and other parts of the country that had been hit hard by omicron weeks before Alaska, cases now appear to be declining. She added that although Alaska is still seeing a precipitous increase in cases, the state would likely follow that trend and see similar decline in new cases in the coming weeks.
Zink called getting vaccinated “our single best prevention tool, particularly against severe illness,” and encouraged all Alaskans, especially those who are at a higher risk of severe illness, to continue taking precautionary measures like avoiding crowds, wearing a well-fitting face mask in public, and social distancing when possible while cases remain high.
Alaskans should also get tested when they’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 or are experiencing any symptoms of the virus. They can now visit covidtests.gov to order four COVID-19 tests that will be shipped to their homes free of charge.
[Website for free coronavirus tests is open. Here’s how it works.]
The state on Wednesday also updated its data dashboard to include an additional 63 COVID-19 deaths among residents and an additional non-resident, totaling 1,051 deaths statewide since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.
Most of those newly reported deaths were identified through a standard review of death certificates, a sometimes lengthy process which health officials rely on to report cause of deaths. It was not immediately clear how recently those deaths had occurred.
The resident deaths included: 18 people from Anchorage, five from the Bethel Census Area, two from the Copper River Census Area, two from Delta Junction, one from Dillingham, three from Fairbanks, one from Hoonah-Angoon and Yakutat, one from the Houston and Big Lake area, three from Juneau, three from Kenai, one from Kotzebue, one from Nikiski, one from North Pole, four Palmer, one from Seward, one from Seward, two from Soldotna, one from Utqiagvik, and 13 from Wasilla.
Of those, 19 were in their 50s or younger, while the rest were in their 60s or older.