As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gets ready for the start of in-person classes on Tuesday, the state and peninsula are reporting steep hikes in COVID-19 cases.
Statewide for the week of July 30 to Aug. 5 a total of 2,105 new cases were reported statewide. That went up to 2,245 this week — an increase of 6.24% from Aug. 6-12, according to data from the state Department of Health and Social Services. On Friday, the state reported 338 new cases, with 65 resident and two nonresident cases on the Kenai Peninsula.
The state is also seeing a shift in the age range of people testing positive for COVID-19, according to state health officials.
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state, said Thursday during the state’s weekly health briefing that the average age of infected people is younger now than it was at the same time last year.
“As more of the older population becomes fully vaccinated and immune to the virus, you’re going to see a shift in the epidemiology such that a higher proportion of the cases are going to be in younger cohorts,” McLaughlin said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 6,000 kids under 10 years old have tested positive for COVID-19 in Alaska. In the 10- to 19-year-old age range the number of positive cases is approximately 10,000.
Kenai Central High School and Soldotna High School’s football teams canceled four games this weekend because of positive COVID tests. The City of Soldotna also last week reinstated a mask mandate for city buildings.
The school district is strongly encouraging — not requiring — students and staff to wear masks indoors. Masks are mandated, however, for school visitors and volunteers, and while riding school buses.
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during a press briefing Thursday that kids do better academically and mentally in school, but that the recent surge is concerning.
“We are excited to have kids in school,” she said. “We also know that we have a highly contagious virus that continues to spread, and we have tools to be able to minimize that.”
She said officials with the DHSS continue to work with school districts across the state to determine the best ways for communities to combat the harms of the virus.
“This year and a half has been hard on everyone, including our kiddos,” Zink said Thursday. “(We’re) really wanting to make sure that we’re supporting their overall health, including their physical and mental well-being. And having kids in school can be an important tool for that.”
New guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that all eligible individuals should get vaccinated, and all students ages 3 and older plus all school staff should wear masks at school, unless a medical or developmental condition precludes an individual from wearing one.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking by all students 3 and older, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“We are still learning a lot about this virus,” Zink said Thursday. “We continue to see surges, and specifically with the delta variant right now, but we are also at a time where we can’t have all of our kids vaccinated.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine has been approved for emergency use in anyone 12 and older by the Food and Drug Administration. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for emergency use in anyone 18 and older.
“Kids tend to do much better with this disease than adults, but … we still see hospitalizations,” Zink said. “We’ve been fortunate in the state that we’ve not had a pediatric death, but we continue to watch this virus closely and do what we can to encourage communities, schools, (and) individuals to take precaution.”
There was a mass vaccination effort in the state in the late winter and early spring, but inoculation rates have been tapering off a bit this summer.
As of Friday, 53.1% of Alaskans 12 and older were fully vaccinated. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, however, falls behind with a vaccination rate of 45.1% for those 12 and older.
“Right now we’re all making a choice between the vaccine and COVID with how quickly this is spreading,” Zink said Thursday. “It would be great if we didn’t have COVID and we didn’t need the vaccine and we weren’t here, but the reality is that we have this virus and it’s spreading and we all have a choice on how we want to deal with it.”
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
Vaccines are 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.
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, Capstone Clinic and Central Peninsula Urgent Care.
In Soldotna, testing is available at the Central Peninsula Hospital, 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 August 17, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-through testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 3 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 email@example.com.