COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

COVID-19 death toll spikes due to backlog of data

Health officials struggle to keep up with coronavirus tracking.

The addition of backlogged data to statewide coronavirus tracking information pushed Alaska’s COVID-19 death toll to 514 on Friday, with 44 new cases announced during a Zoom meeting with Alaska state health officials.

The state Department of Health and Social Services reports have been affected by backlogged COVID-19 data as more and more people are becoming infected, officials said during the Friday briefing.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said processing the increasing number of COVID cases as well as hospitalizations and deaths and adding them to the real-time epi curve — a chart used to visualize an outbreak — has been difficult over the past few months as more and more people come down with COVID-19.

“So when we’re using the word backlog, what we are intending to describe is that cases that are reported to us may not be posted the next day,” she said Friday. “And so as we’ve been working to increase our staff to increase the speed with which we can get those processed, we have not been able to keep up and those case reports have still continued to increase.”

A Kenai man in his 60s, a Soldotna woman in her 70s and a Soldotna man in his 20s were among the additional 44 COVID-19 deaths reported by the state after death certificate review.

Officials said the additional 44 COVID-19 deaths occurred from April through September, with 31 of them in August.

The process for recording deaths, officials said, also takes time.

Clint Farr, the operations manager with the Division of Public Health in Juneau, said Friday that physicians first make the primary call for the cause of death — which he said is a “medical opinion.”

Next the death record is sent to the state’s vital record staff and then the National Center for Health Statistics, where the death is coded to allow public health officials to compare it to other states and over different years.

The coded death records are sent back to public health in the area they were reported and reconciled with the section of epidemiology before they are added to state databases.

“That’s why every few weeks or so you might see a bump in the number of deaths that occur from COVID, because we’ve done a reconciliation with death certificates,” Farr said.

The process is the same for all cause-of-death reporting, Farr noted, not just COVID.

Additionally, the state announced another 1,793 positive COVID cases on Friday — the highest number of cases reported in a single day since the beginning of the pandemic and a significant jump from the previous day’s case numbers of 1,330 new positive tests. Officials said Friday’s count did include backlogged cases, but the state did not have the resources to determine when each person tested positive.

On Friday the state’s alert level was eight times higher than the high alert level threshold, at 973.9 people per 100,000 with COVID. The case count included 81 in Kenai, 63 in Soldotna, 14 in Nikiski, nine in Seward, eight in both Homer and the Kenai Peninsula Borough North, and five each in Anchor Point and Sterling.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, said Friday that it’s important to look at the onset data graph to decipher how much known COVID is actually circulating in real time.

Friday’s epi curve showed that Alaskans are currently experiencing more COVID cases and hospitalization, on average, than at any other point of the pandemic.

“It’s going to take a while for us to get all of the onset data logged in with this recent bolus of cases that we’re seeing,” McLaughlin said.

Statewide, there were 223 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Friday.

At Central Peninsula Hospital there were 22 COVID patients on Friday morning — 22 unvaccinated — with six of them in the intensive care unit and three on ventilators. The intensive care unit was operating at 100% capacity and the hospital as a whole was at 106% capacity Friday morning.

Health officials widely agree that choosing to get vaccinated is the single best tool there is to protect the people in each community.

The Pfizer-BioNTech, now marketed as the Comirnaty vaccine, received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration last month for anyone 16 and older.

Booster doses are also now available for those who received the primary Pfizer vaccine series and are 65 and older, as well as some others with autoimmune disorders and other high-risk populations.

The new booster guidance is only for those who have received the Pfizer vaccine — those with the Moderna series or the single Johnson & Johnson/Janssen dose are not yet eligible for a booster shot.

For more on qualification prerequisites for a Pfizer booster shot, officials urge people to contact their primary care providers.

Pfizer is still available via emergency use authorization to kids 12 to 15 years old, and the Moderna and Janssen shots have an EUA for anyone 18 and older.

Across the state, 58.5% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday. Another 62.8% had received at least one shot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind many other regions in the state.

As of Friday, 48.9% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 52.1% had received at least one dose. The only census area to have a lower vaccination rate in residents 12 and older was the Matanuska-Susitna region on Friday, which just recently broke 40%.

Getting a vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

As an incentive to get the jab, the DHSS and Alaska Chamber of Commerce launched a lottery program for newly vaccinated eligible residents that offers weekly winners a prize of at least $49,000. To find out the eligibility requirements or to enter into the giveaway sweepstakes, visit giveakashot.com. The lottery lasts through Oct. 30.

Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart, Walgreens, and the Kenai Fire Department 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 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.

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. Starting Sept. 14, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 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 camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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