South Peninsula Hospital registered nurse Anne Garay gives Jessica Entsminger her second COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, May 7, 2021, at a pop-up vaccination clinic at the Boathouse Pavillion on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska. About 25 people received vaccines in the first 3.5 hours of the 4-hour clinic. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

As COVID cases increase, officials think we’re not yet at the fourth peak

Department of Health and Social Services officials said during a Thursday press briefing that COVID-19 case trends in Alaska are likely to mimic the spikes in the Southern Lower 48 states in the coming weeks.

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said the recent uptick in cases is once again putting strain on hospitals and staff.

“Seeing a fourth wave is a little demoralizing, honestly,” Zink said.

She said Thursday that Alaska’s data curves for COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths have appeared to be similar to states like Missouri, Louisiana and others in the Southern region, but just a few weeks behind.

According to data from The New York Times on Thursday, Louisiana is currently at a COVID level not seen since the middle of January. If Alaska follows these trends, as it has in previous spikes, the state will see more cases in the coming weeks.

“I think we have a chance to learn from these other states, and encourage people to get vaccinated like, today,” Zink said.

In the last week, there has been a 140% statewide increase in COVID cases and 59% increase in COVID-related hospitalizations, Zink said. Additionally, the delta variant accounts for around half of new COVID cases.

“(We’re) not where we want to be in the state but we’re following the national average,” Zink said.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the rates of infection are also increasing.

Bruce Richards, the external affairs director of the Central Peninsula Hospital and Heritage Place Skilled Nursing facility, told the Clarion on Thursday that the hospital is at capacity.

“It’s not full just because of COVID,” he said. “(But) we’re definitely seeing a spike in the emergency room.”

This is with a staff that is a little over half — approximately 60% — vaccinated against the virus.

Richards said another staffer at Heritage Place has come down with COVID-19, and the facility is shut down to visitors until two rounds of testing are complete and none come back positive. Heritage Place’s resident vaccination rate is still at approximately 94%.

Richards also confirmed on Thursday that there were a total of six COVID inpatients, with one on a ventilator. Additionally, he said more COVID-positive patients have come in, but they’ve been discharged because they weren’t sick enough for admission.

According to a March study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the average hospitalization length of a COVID patient not admitted to the intensive care unit was six days, costing a total of approximately $10,500. For those who went to the ICU, the median stay was 15 days, which cost patients almost $40,000.

Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist with the state, said during Thursday’s briefing that a year ago, over 40% of COVID hospitalizations were of people 65 years and older. Now a year later, he said, that percentage reflects the number of 18- to 49-year-olds hospitalized with the virus.

Richards said at the Central Peninsula Hospital, he’s seeing admitted COVID patients anywhere from their late 20s to their 80s.

“The demographics have moved down some,” he said.

Richards said anecdotally, he’s heard from staffers that the majority of COVID patients are unvaccinated individuals.

Health officials are still desperately urging people to get their full COVID doses, especially as the upward trend resembles last November’s uptick at the worst of the pandemic.

“We have a chance but that window is narrowing quickly,” Zink said during Thursday’s briefing.

Richards also said he would encourage peninsula residents to do some more research and perhaps think again about getting vaccinated.

“There’s a way to avoid all this,” he said.

Getting vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines are free of charge.

Vaccination appointments can be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.

Vaccines are also available through the Kenai Fire Department by calling 907-283-8270, by walk-in every week at the Soldotna Wednesday Market, and for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

Many different businesses on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart and Walgreens, 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 Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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-19 testing locations on the Kenai Peninsula

On the central peninsula, testing is available at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Dena’ina Health Clinic, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice. Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.

In Homer, testing is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily at the lower level of South Peninsula Hospital as well as through SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at the hospital at 907-235-0235 and at the SVT clinics at 907-226-2228.

In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 4 p.m. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

At the Seward Community Health Center, free testing will be available on Saturday due to the recent increase in cases. To schedule, call 907-224-2273. Also in Seward, testing is available at Providence Seward, Glacier Family Medicine and North Star Health Clinic.

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

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