Alaska News

Coronavirus Q&A: Facts and tips for Alaskans as omicron drives up case counts

Tens of thousands of people in Alaska — close to 6% of the population — have tested positive for COVID-19 since New Year’s, shattering daily COVID-19 records.

Health officials in the state say this latest surge, driven by the ultra-contagious omicron variant, represents a new stage in the pandemic — one marked by more cases and generally milder illness. However, it is still putting further strain on a beleaguered health care system and sending dozens of Alaskans to the hospital.

As Alaska enters the third year of the pandemic, here’s a roundup of information on strategies to get a test if you need one, what to do if you lose your vaccination card, whether you should be worried about an at-home test freezing before it ends up in your mailbox, and more.

How are Alaska’s hospitals faring during the omicron surge?

Over the last two weeks, as case counts have risen precipitously, Alaska’s hospitals have reported a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Facilities are beginning to feel the strain in the form of limited ICU space, staffing challenges and increasing limitations on transfers.

However, these facilities say many of their patients are not as sick as they were in the past — likely because the omicron variant appears to cause overall milder illness than previous variants — and that the rate of hospitalization is currently lower than during previous surges.

[There’s a new version of omicron but so far it doesn’t appear to be more dangerous]

By Wednesday, there were 129 Alaskans hospitalized with COVID-19 around the state — an increase from last week but still well below the record high hospitalizations seen during a peak last fall that pushed many facilities to a breaking point.

Hospitals’ biggest pressure point so far during the omicron surge has been staffing. The rapid spread of omicron has meant hundreds of health care workers testing positive or being exposed to someone with the virus, causing them to stay home from work. Over the last few weeks, many hospitals around the state have reported extremely tight staffing as cases continued to rise.

Are more vaccinated Alaskans ending up in the hospital with the omicron variant?

While it’s still possible to get very sick from the virus as a vaccinated person, Alaska hospitals continue to report that the majority of their current COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and health officials continue to call COVID-19 vaccines the most effective tool available when it comes to preventing hospitalization and death from the virus.

[Booster shots strongly protect against severe COVID from omicron variant, CDC studies show]

Due to its many mutations, the omicron variant — which accounts for the vast majority of current cases — is more likely than other variants to evade vaccines.

However, real-world data shows that vaccinated people, and especially those who’ve gotten their booster shots, are still very well protected against more severe illness from the virus.

Many Alaskans — 31% — still haven’t gotten vaccinated, and three-quarters haven’t gotten booster shots. Alaskans can make appointments to get shots online or by calling the state’s coronavirus helpline, 1-800-478-2221.

When might cases peak in Alaska?

State health officials say the latest surge could peak within a few weeks, based on trends in other states.

Alaska chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said on a national level, we’re seeing a turnaround. East Coast states like New York are now trending downward significantly. Alaska’s trends tend to follow behind the rest of the United States, Zink said.

[Omicron’s silver lining: The highly contagious variant should leave behind extremely high levels of immunity]

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s chief epidemiologist, said he suspected that Alaska’s peak will occur just a few weeks behind some of those eastern U.S. states that are already trending downward. The omicron wave hit Alaska roughly two weeks after it hit the East Coast, he said.

But for the moment, daily case counts in Alaska are the highest they’ve ever been.

What should I keep in mind when trying to find a test?

During the omicron surge, lines at local testing sites have stretched around blocks, and finding an at-home test at drug stores and distribution sites hasn’t always been easy.

In Anchorage by the end of last week, the situation had improved somewhat compared to recent weeks.

As of Friday, rapid tests were back in stock in at least two Walgreens, though at least two others were out. A PCR testing site run by Beacon on Tudor Road near the Old Seward Highway had a wait time of around 15 minutes.

The 24-hour testing site at Alaska Park off Spenard Road had about a 10-minute wait, as did the testing location on C Street. And lines at Alaska Airlines Center and Changepoint Church were around 15 cars or less.

Contractors at those sites said wait times varied throughout the day, but were typically shortest right around opening time.

Also by Tuesday afternoon, the city’s testing website, anchoragecovidtest.org, was tracking average wait times in real time at sites around the municipality. Most were under an hour, the site said. Anchorage residents can check that site before going to get tested.

Alaskans can also get tested at doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics and some pharmacies, including Walgreens.

Despite somewhat reduced sensitivity of a rapid or home test, they are more convenient than PCR tests. They also offer results much more quickly — in about 15 minutes, compared to the couple of days required for a lab to process a PCR test.

And although false negative test results are slightly more common with rapid tests when compared to PCR tests, fortunately, most home test kits include two tests per box. It’s best to consider taking both tests a couple days apart for a better chance of detecting an infection, health officials say.

What should I do if I lose my vaccination card?

Alaskans who need a copy of their immunization record, including COVID-19 vaccinations, can print out an immunization record request form and mail or fax the completed form to the Alaska Immunization VacTrAK program, said Matt Bobo, Alaska’s immunization program manager. People can also ask for an immunization record request form at their provider’s office or a local public health center.

Those requesting a copy of their vaccine record will need to include a copy of a document that identifies who’s submitting the request, such as a copy of their driver’s license, state-issued photo ID or passport.

Should I order the free at-home tests to Alaska, or should I be worried about them freezing?

This month the federal government launched a website that allows each household to order four at-home tests to be shipped to them free of charge: covidtests.gov.

In Alaska, there was initially some concern that those tests could freeze and become unusable if left for too long in mailboxes in freezing temperatures. In updated guidance posted over the weekend, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released clarifications for accepting tests in cold places.

[Website for free coronavirus tests is open. Here’s how it works.]

The agency said the tests should work even after spending time in the cold. However, “test performance may be impacted if the test is used while it is still cold,” the FDA said, and those who receive their tests “should bring the package inside your home and leave it unopened at room temperature for at least two hours before opening it.”

“As long as the test line(s) appear as described in the instructions, you can be confident that the test is performing as it should,” the FDA said.

Many Alaskans can directly order up to four free at-⁠home COVID-⁠19 tests at COVIDtests.gov or call 1-800-232-0233 (TTY...

Posted by Alaska Health and Social Services on Friday, January 21, 2022

Zink added last week in a Twitter thread that Alaskans should also avoid using the tests after multiple freeze cycles, and to “be alert to the possibility of an invalid test prior to use and do not use if the tests appears invalid,” she wrote.

State health officials had also heard reports of some Alaskans with P.O. boxes having challenges with ordering the tests, which seem to require a verifiable physical address.

“We know many Alaskans either don’t have a ZIP code or a specific address to ship to, so we have been working with the federal government to make sure that we can get these tests available to you,” Zink said.

When should I get tested?

Zink said there are a few scenarios in particular where she would recommend Alaskans get tested:

• If you feel sick, or if you have any COVID-19 symptoms, even mild ones.

• Five days after you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

• When required by work or school.

• Before and after travel — and pay special attention to testing requirements for places you’re visiting.

•. Before attending an indoor, unmasked gathering, especially one that will be attended by higher-risk people.

What COVID-19 treatments are available in Alaska?

There are a number of treatments that can help reduce the risk of severe illness in someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, including therapeutics, antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibody therapies.

However, some of these treatments are currently in short supply, some are less effective against omicron than delta, and some may be prioritized for those most at-risk.

Zink recommends that Alaskans who test positive for the coronavirus to reach out to their primary health care providers, or call the state’s COVID-19 helpline at 907-646-3322, for more information on available treatments.

Daily News reporter Morgan Krakow contributed to this story.

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.

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