COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

As cases surge, public health officials contemplate how to live with virus

Contact tracing and data collection will have to be reworked if COVID is here to stay

Officials during a press briefing Thursday said that they’re starting to reframe how they think about public health in this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic — focusing less on how to eradicate the virus and instead placing emphasis on living safely with it.

Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said surveillance, contact tracing and data collection will have to be reworked if COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“I think what we’re trying to do now is also learn as we’re sort of integrating and also figuring out what resources are,” she said Thursday. “I think we also need to figure out what were the things that we did really well with COVID, or that we learned from COVID.”

As Alaska is in the midst of its third surge, local and national officials have moved away from discussions about eradication or herd immunity. Now, they’re focused on adapting to the realities of the pandemic using the most scientifically proven prevention and mitigation methods.

Sarah Hargrave, the regional nurse manager in Southeast, said during Thursday’s briefing that people used to die of diseases like diphtheria in the 1800s, but medical development has actually put people today at an advantage.

“While we aren’t in the 1860s, 1870s anymore, I think we just need to keep in mind that, as a society and as public health, medical science has just come such a long way,” Hargrave said.

She said the most effective tool in combating the negative effects of the virus is vaccination, and that while the shot might not prevent all breakthrough cases, it still offers really robust protection.

“Is it going to prevent every case of COVID? No,” Hargrave said. “Is it going to save lives? Is it saving lives? 100% it is.”

She said the emphasis is on reducing risk now, more so than complete prevention.

“We have that tool available; we have a lot more science about how things are transmitted. We know that masks are very effective in reducing your risk,” Hargrave said. “We know all the different ways we can layer protections … and we just need to apply what we’ve learned over these many centuries of struggling with infection disease, to protect ourselves looking forward.”

While COVID cases have started to drop in many parts of the country, cases continue to climb in Alaska.

According to data from the New York Times on Thursday, the Alaska was the state with the most newly reported COVID cases per capita in the country. Statistics also show that an unvaccinated person is twice as likely to become infected and 20 times more likely to die of COVID than a fully vaccinated person.

In addition to a primary series — two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Janssen vaccine — experts are strongly encouraging booster shots to protect against omicron.

State health officials have said studies indicate that a person with their primary series is expected to be about 35% protected against omicron, but that protection jumps to 75% with a booster dose.

As of Thursday, just barely over 25% of Alaskans 5 and older had received a COVID booster dose since August, according to state data. Another 61.5% had completed their primary series, and 68.9% had received at least one shot since December 2020. On the Kenai Peninsula, 48.4% of those 5 and older were fully vaccinated and another 52.4% had received at least one dose as of Thursday. Just over 21% had been boosted. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for anyone 18 and older.

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.

Janssen boosters are approved for anyone 18 and older at least two months after initial vaccination, although the FDA announced it was revising its fact sheet for the Janssen shot to include more data on the risks of blood clotting associated with the vaccine.

According to the DHSS Facebook page, the state is recommending people with a primary Janssen vaccine to get either a Pfizer or Moderna booster for more robust protection.

Getting a 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.

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.

Testing locations

Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.

In Kenai, testing is available at 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 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. In addition, Capstone Clinic in Homer will be offering drive-thru tests Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Friday. Register with the COVID Secure App before arriving.

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.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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