While medical knowledge about and treatment of COVID-19 has advanced in the past two years, the pandemic isn’t over yet, health officials with the state Department of Health and Social Services said Thursday, noting a sharp increase in statewide cases in the past several weeks.
“Things are changing rapidly here in the state of Alaska,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during Thursday’s press briefing. “You can see that there is a clear trend upwards. We have really noticed a very significant change in cases and case reporting, really even in the last 24 hours.”
In Alaska, COVID cases increased 145% from this week to last week, according to state data.
Zink said Alaska hasn’t seen the same sharp increase in hospitalizations yet, but that health care providers are concerned about staffing shortages if another COVID wave comes.
The increase comes as the omicron variant has become the dominant strain in the United States, just over a month after it was first detected in South Africa and deemed a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 95.4% of new COVID cases reported during the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 were omicron cases.
To avoid a wave similar to the one experienced with the delta variant, which inundated state hospitals with more COVID positive patients than there were licensed beds, state officials reiterated the importance of vaccination.
“Looking at November’s data, you’re 10.7 times more likely to be hospitalized if you’re unvaccinated compared to vaccinated,” Zink said.
In addition to a primary series — two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine — experts are strongly encouraging booster shots to protect against omicron.
“Over time, over two doses, you see that both against delta and omicron, you see protection against the virus,” Zink said. “But you see less protection against omicron than you do against delta.”
She said current studies are indicating that a person with their primary series is expected to be about 35% protected against omicron versus 64% protected against delta. With a booster dose, Zink said protection jumps to about 75% against omicron and 93% against delta.
The Food and Drug Administration and CDC are recommending Pfizer boosters for anyone 12 and older at least five months after the primary series. Additionally, Moderna boosters are recommended for anyone 18 and older at least six months after a primary series, as well as Janssen boosters for anyone 18 and older at least two months after initial vaccination.
Although new infections are spiking in Alaska and around the world, health officials Thursday said there are a few silver linings.
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, said the omicron wave in South Africa just took about two weeks to peak before cases started to fall substantially again.
“It appears as though the wave itself is going to be hopefully shorter than other waves we’ve seen before,” he said.
That’s compared to the delta wave, which took about six weeks to peak in India where the variant emerged last spring, and stayed in Alaska from around the middle of July to approximately the end of October.
Zink also said studies are indicating that omicron might cause slightly less severe disease than some of the other COVID strains.
“I think one of the things that makes me super hopeful about 2022 is how much we’ve learned about science and technology,” she said. “We have amazingly efficacious vaccines, we continue to learn more, we have treatment options that we never had available.”
Another point of optimism, she said, is witnessing the resilience of members of society.
“When I step back and look at this, I am just blown away by human ingenuity, by the ability to problem-solve and to figure things out and to add art and science and culture to this overall experience,” Zink said. “The humanity that we see everyday in our interactions with other people to be able to really take care of each other and promote (our) health and well-being.”
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
Many organizations on the central peninsula, including Walmart, Walgreens, the Kenai Fire Department and Kenai Public Health, 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. The clinic is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.
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 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.
At-home test kits are also available for free at Kenai Public Health.
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. Due to an increased need for COVID testing, the Seward Community Health Center and Providence Medical Center are hosting drive-thru testing on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. through at least Jan. 18. Bring a face mask and a photo ID to get tested.
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 email@example.com.