Alaska News

First 2 years of pandemic saw nearly 2,000 unexpected deaths in Alaska, many linked to COVID-19

During the first two years of the pandemic, nearly 2,000 more Alaskans died than models predicted, according to a report released this week by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

A little over half of Alaska’s so-called “excess deaths” in 2020 and 2021 — or 1,097 out of 1,933 — could be directly attributed to COVID-19, meaning the virus was listed as a contributing cause of death on the death certificate, according to the report.

But many of the other deaths were likely connected to pandemic-related factors such as the lack of available hospital beds and delays in screenings or other preventive care, said report co-author Rosa Avila, deputy chief of the state’s Health Analytics and Vital Records Section.

Diseases of the heart, accidents — in particular, unintentional drug overdoses — and chronic liver disease all contributed to significantly more deaths than expected in 2021, according to the report.

Alaskans over the past two years experienced hospitals occasionally overwhelmed with patients, as well as delayed care, limited supplies of medical equipment and personal protection, and collectively worse mental health.

“When we have a pandemic, there’s a breakdown of other systems,” Avila said. “All of those things could have impacted mortality. And there’s no real way to actually be able to measure where all those things occurred.”

“Excess deaths” are a measure of deaths that occur beyond what is expected. Public health officials track them in times of crisis like a pandemic to check for additional mortality not included in official counts as well as from other less direct causes.

[Alaska saw a major increase in overall deaths across the state after introduction of delta variant]

The new report was based on monthly deaths that occurred between 2010 and 2019 and modeling that imagined no global pandemic, its authors say.

Avila said that while the report indicates some COVID-19 deaths may be have been missed or underreported, that number was likely not statistically significant.

The report found the deadliest month of the last two years was the peak of the delta variant surge in the state: October 2021, when 741 deaths were reported — 324 more than expected.

It also shows disproportionate pandemic impacts by race, age and gender.

The excess death rate was about twice as high for men as it was for women. By race, Alaska Native people experienced the highest excess death rate. By age, excess deaths were highest among seniors age 65-74, followed by the 55-64 age group and the 75-84 age group.

The toll the virus took on younger Alaskans was of particular interest to Avila.

“A lot of us were focused on, you know, people with high risk of getting severe outcomes of COVID. And, you know, not seeing ourselves at risk of COVID,” she said. “But we saw a significant number of excess deaths among Alaskans 35 to 64.”

Lower vaccination rates among younger Alaskans compared to the elderly could have played a role in the higher mortality rates, Avila said.

Excess death data from 2022 was not yet available, but Avila said she was hopeful future years would see fewer deaths and lower mortality rates from COVID-19. There have been 170 COVID-19 deaths reported in Alaska so far this year.

“We’re in a different place now than where we were two years ago,” she said.

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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