COVID-19 cases in Alaska have been on a steady decline since early October, but health officials are preparing for the omicron variant to make its way to the state.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during a press briefing Thursday that the downward trend has been encouraging to see.
“We’re finally coming down after this very broad and high surge that we’ve had here recently,” she said.
On Friday, the state Department of Health and Social Services announced 453 new COVID cases, for a seven-day cumulative rolling average of 195 cases per day.
During the peak of the fall surge on Sept. 13, the state was reporting a seven-day average of 884.4 new COVID cases per day, which had surpassed the threshold for high risk more than eight times over.
“(We’re) grateful to see that coming down,” Zink said.
Although cases are falling, state health officials are preparing for the arrival of the omicron COVID variant.
According to the New York Times, the variant had already been detected in 27 U.S. states on Saturday.
“We do not have a known case yet here in Alaska, (but) we may well have a case,” Zink said Thursday. “I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Omicron originated in South Africa and was labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization over Thanksgiving weekend. Health officials across the world are paying close attention to the strain — as it has 50 genetic mutations not seen in combination before, according to the Times.
Zink said Thursday that the medical community is still studying the variant’s behaviors.
“We’re all kind of processing this information together, and the big takeaways are (there’s) still lots to learn,” she said.
Some recent international studies, Zink said, have shown omicron to have a drastic uptick in cases and increased transmissibility. She said the next piece will be to determine the severity of the illness and how hospital capacity will be affected.
Statewide, there were 85 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Friday, with 10 of those patients on ventilators. Patients hospitalized with COVID accounted for 6.5% of the total hospital census on Friday.
Health officials widely agree that vaccination is the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID.
As of Friday, 56% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated, and another 62% had received at least one dose. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is further behind in its vaccination efforts, with 47% of people 5 and older fully vaccinated and 51% with at least one shot as of Friday.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for anyone 18 and older.
The FDA this week also authorized booster shots for 16- and 17-year-olds, amending the emergency use authorization that permitted boosters only for those 18 and older. Pfizer booster shots are now recommended for anyone 16 and older and six months out from their second dose.
Moderna boosters are recommended for anyone 18 and older and six months out from their second dose.
The J&J vaccine booster is recommended two months after the primary dose.
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 has extended its hours to Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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.
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. The Seward Community Health Center at 417 First Avenue is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays only. Bring a face covering and photo ID.
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.