Alaska News

Alaska’s COVID-19 case rate is again the highest in the nation as hospitalizations tick up

As Alaska once again reports the highest COVID-19 case rate in the nation, the highly contagious omicron variant is continuing to snarl staffing at health care facilities that have had to adapt to the ups and downs of the pandemic.

The state on Friday reported 5,897 cases of COVID-19 over the previous two days amid rising hospitalization numbers. Alaska’s seven-day case rate of 2,360.4 cases per 100,000 is higher than any other U.S. state, according to a CDC tracker.

Meanwhile, cases and hospitalizations in many other states and countries continued to fall. Alaska’s omicron surge began a few weeks after other states, which is likely why cases here have not yet begun to slow, Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said Thursday during a call with reporters.

“Alaska, Oklahoma and Washington are currently leading the pack,” she said, while “many of the East Coast states such as Maryland and Washington, D.C., have really started to come down significantly after these large peaks. So just different places at different times with this virus.”

The latest case count included 5,699 cases among Alaska residents and 198 among nonresidents in the state.

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Around the world, omicron surges have been marked by less severe disease in many cases, along with fewer hospitalizations and deaths. However, in Alaska, a combination of staff shortages and rising patient counts are continuing to strain the state’s health care system.

By Friday, there were 156 COVID-positive patients hospitalized — up from 129 reported Wednesday and 139 reported Monday, but still well below the more than 230 hospitalizations reported during a peak last fall. About 15% of all hospitalizations in the state involved people with COVID-19.

At Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, there were somewhere between 80 and 100 staff members who had called out on Friday due to illness or possible exposure, according to Mikal Canfield, hospital spokesman. Just one ICU bed remained available by Friday at noon.

One hopeful sign, Canfield said, was that it appeared as though staff callouts at the hospital had somewhat plateaued by the end of week — they were neither decreasing or increasing.

At Alaska Native Medical Center, “our COVID inpatient numbers have gradually increased, but we do have beds available,” said Fiona Brosnan, a hospital spokeswoman. She said that staffing continued to be challenging with high numbers of callouts.

Despite the surge in cases and hospitalizations, Zink said she thinks that in some ways, Alaska’s pandemic response feels smoother this time around.

“Unfortunately, we had a bad delta surge here in this state, and what happened was the team got really good at being able to record a lot of cases quickly. The health care sector started to meet on a regular basis,” she explained. “We figured out how to get additional nurses.”

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Other states hit less hard by delta are now “very underwater trying to figure out how to respond” during omicron, she said. “So I think we just have to use a lot of caution when we look directly at state-to-state comparisons, to have a full sense of what’s happening.”

Public health officials continue to emphasize vaccination, as well as social distancing and masking, as the best ways to combat the omicron variant. As of Friday, just over 61% of residents over 5 and military members or veterans had completed their primary series of vaccinations. Only about a quarter of eligible residents had received booster shots.

The national average for fully vaccinated people is 63%. Alaska ranks 33rd among states for its vaccination rate.

Alaska on Friday also reported four more deaths from the virus, all involving Anchorage residents: three men in their 40s, 60s and 70s, respectively, plus a woman in her 70s.

Since March 2020, there have been 1,052 COVID-19 deaths among Alaska residents and 33 nonresident deaths.

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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.

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