Alaska had the most per-capita COVID-19 cases in the country again Monday, as the Department of Health and Social Services reported an additional 4,025 new cases over the weekend.
According to the state’s dashboard, the seven-day rolling COVID case average has far exceeded last winter’s peak — which hit 704.7 cases in a single day on Dec. 12 — soaring to 1,273.6 on Sunday.
Although some of the excess cases are likely due to data backlog, officials said during a press briefing last Thursday, there is still a lot of COVID currently present in Alaska.
Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said in the Thursday press conference that while the state’s health care system isn’t necessarily on the brink of complete collapse, many hospitals are near, at or over capacity.
“It’s not like suddenly the whole system collapses,” Zink said. “It’s a series of small decisions that can impact an individual’s health that collectively become greater over time.”
Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna has 49 regularly licensed beds, and in the last few weeks as both COVID and non-COVID patients have flooded the hospital, the staff has had to open up overflow space to accommodate the influx.
Of the 23 COVID patients at the Soldotna hospital Monday morning — 20 of them unvaccinated — six were in the intensive care unit and five were on ventilators.
Monday’s new case count included 109 in Kenai, 63 in Soldotna, 32 in Seward, 26 in Nikiski, 20 in Homer, seven in Sterling, six in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North, five in Anchor Point, and two in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South.
According to the New York Times COVID database, the average caseload is up 62% in Alaska over the past 14 days.
Zink said health care professionals across Alaska are being forced to make adjustments as COVID continues to move rapidly through the state.
“Currently we’re seeing, across the state … changes to the care that is normally provided,” she said. “So that may be having less nurses to care for your patients, that may be delayed in-transfers, that may be not having the exact machine that you would typically use in that situation.”
She said the strain is hard on everyone involved.
“That kind of feels like a collapse,” Zink said. “But I think what will happen is if we continue to see cases go up, we will continue to see people be hospitalized, we will continue to see more strain on the system, we will see more cost to the system, we will see more Alaskans die.”
Backlogged data added another 21 deaths to the total number of COVID fatalities Monday — pushing the toll to 532 since the pandemic began. They included an Anchor Point woman in her 80s and a Homer man in his 50s.
Health officials with the state noted that most of the 21 deaths were identified through death certificate review from July through September.
In an effort to try to alleviate some burden on hospitals and their employees, the Department of Health and Social Services announced last week it has recruited 470 health care professionals from the Lower 48 to work in Alaska on 90-day contracts, with an additional optional extension. They are set to start arriving this week.
This comes as the state reported a total of 215 COVID hospitalizations in Alaska on Monday. That’s over one-fifth — 21.4% — of people in the state who are hospitalized.
Zink said the inundation of the hospitals will likely make it harder to rebound even after COVID cases start dropping off again.
“I do anticipate that we will see hospital capacity strain for months as a result of the current service that we’re seeing,” she said. “And so I think we as Alaskans need to be prepared for really limited health care capacity for months.”
Zink said more people choosing to vaccinate will prevent more illness and deaths.
“Really our health care systems and the people are under siege from this virus right now,” Zink said. “But we have amazing tools to slow it down and to really help prevent severe illness and death.”
She said choosing to get fully vaccinated against COVID is the best decision Alaskans can make to help get the virus under control.
As of Monday, 58.9% of Alaska residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated. The Kenai Peninsula Borough falls below that average, reporting that almost half of its eligible residents — 49.1% — had received their full dose series as of Monday.
“Burnout is oftentimes a system failure, not a person failure,” Zink said Thursday. “And we need to find ways to help minimize the burnout, which means we need to stop having so many cases and so many people going to the hospital. So I think the best thing we can do to help our health care workers is … to get vaccinated, to wear a mask in indoor spaces, (and) to get tested.”
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
As an incentive to get the jab, the DHSS and Alaska Chamber of Commerce launched a lottery program for newly vaccinated eligible residents that offers weekly winners a prize of at least $49,000. To find out the eligibility requirements or to enter into the giveaway sweepstakes, visit giveakashot.com. The lottery lasts through Oct. 30.
Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart, Walgreens and the Kenai Fire Department, offer vaccines. They are also available for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Additionally, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy hosts a walk-in clinic in its strip mall storefront at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The Food and Drug Administration last week also recommended certain people get a Pfizer COVID-19 booster dose at least six months after the primary series, including those 65 years and older, those 18 through 64 years old at high risk for severe illness, and those 18 through 64 whose institutional or occupational exposure puts them at high risk for contraction. No booster shots have been recommended for those who received a Moderna or Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and mixing COVID-19 shots is not permitted.
The Seward Community Health Center is now offering Pfizer boosters for approved demographics, as well as third doses of the Moderna vaccine for immunocompromised people.
For more information on booster shot eligibility, health officials recommend reaching out to a primary care provider.
Vaccination appointments can also be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.
A map of vaccine providers can be found on DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.
People who would like assistance with scheduling a vaccination appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. The central peninsula call center can be reached at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center can be reached at 907-235-4636. The Seward call center can be reached at 907-224-4636.
COVID testing locations
Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.
In Kenai, testing is available at the Chignik Lagoon Clinic, Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center and Capstone Clinic.
In Soldotna, testing is available at the Peninsula Community Health Center, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Walgreens and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.
In Seward, testing is available at Providence Medical Center, Chugachmiut-North Star Health Clinic, Glacier Family Medicine, Seward Community Health Center and the Safeway pharmacy. Starting Sept. 14, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-through testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.