COVID-19 cases are rising and health officials say new variants are spurring the increase, even among the vaccinated. But health officials note the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are occurring in unvaccinated people. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire file)

COVID-19 cases are rising and health officials say new variants are spurring the increase, even among the vaccinated. But health officials note the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are occurring in unvaccinated people. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire file)

COVID-19 surge continues

‘They’re getting sicker this time around’

Monday afternoon, Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna was treating 10 patients for COVID-19 after a patient, a man in his 70s who had been on a ventilator for several days, died midmorning.

The patient was one of three who were on ventilators last Friday — another was medevaced to Seattle for a “higher level of care” and the other was still intubated at CPH on Monday.

“(The emergency department) is seeing many more COVID-positive patients than a month ago,” CPH External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said Monday.

Richards said two COVID-19 patients were discharged Monday, but those two were immediately replaced by two that were admitted to keep the number at 10. That’s in addition to people who come into CPH’s emergency department, are treated for COVID-19 and then discharged.

Richards said last week that the number of people CPH is treating for COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks, which reflects spiking COVID-19 case numbers in Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Double-digit case increases were reported on the central peninsula six out of the last seven days, with 155 cases reported in the last two weeks. In Seward, where the significantly more contagious delta variant has been confirmed, 51 cases were reported over the last two weeks. The southern peninsula reported 86 new cases during the same time period.

The B.1.672.2, or delta, COVID-19 variant, has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Variants of concern are those for which there is evidence of, among other things, an increase in transmissibility and more severe disease. The delta variant specifically has been associated with increased transmissibility.

All of that is in addition to a spike in the remote community of Seldovia, across Kachemak Bay, where 13 COVID-19 cases were reported during the week of July 19 out of Seldovia Village Tribe Health & Wellness. Closures of the Seldovia Ferry Terminal and the city’s Senior Meals Program were announced later that week “out of an abundance of precaution due to active COVID-19 cases in the community.” Seldovia Village Tribe Marketing & Public Relations Director Laurel Hilts said Monday that no additional cases were reported over the weekend.

The surge in cases mirrors statewide COVID-19 trends and comes amid stagnating COVID-19 vaccination rates on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced 562 new cases in Alaska from July 23 to July 25, including 124 new cases from Sunday. Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink has called the surge a “fourth wave.”

Included in the weekend total are 78 cases from the Kenai Peninsula among residents and nonresidents: 25 in Seward, 20 in Soldotna, 18 in Kenai, eight in Kenai Peninsula Borough South, five in Kenai Peninsula Borough North, one in Anchor Point and one in Sterling.

Statewide, 57.2% of Alaskans 12 and older had received at least one dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. Fifty-two percent were fully vaccinated. That is compared to the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where 47.1% of residents 12 and older have received at least one dose and 44.2% were fully vaccinated. That is according to DHSS data updated Monday.

Kenai Public Health Nurse Tami Marsters said Monday that public health’s recommendations are more of the same: stay home if you’re sick, quarantine or isolate if you end up positive, wear a mask if you’re around a lot of people, get vaccinated.

“Nothing has changed at all, even though nobody’s wearing a mask or being careful anymore,” Marsters said. “We have an awful lot of circulating virus.”.

For people visiting the Kenai Peninsula from other parts of the state or from the Lower 48, Marsters said it is important that if they test positive, they do not travel. That may include isolating in their hotel or other lodging accommodations, as there is currently no specific place where travelers who contract COVID-19 can go to quarantine.

“I think we need to just keep talking about it because there’s a lot of people getting sick, and they’re getting sicker this time around,” Marsters said.

She added that there are numerous places on the Kenai Peninsula to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Marsters said.

DHSS health officials have consistently lauded the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines currently available in Alaska. The Pfizer & BioNTech vaccine, which is available to people 12 and older, requires two doses administered three weeks apart and is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection. The Moderna vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older, requires two doses administered one month apart and is also more than 90% effective. Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older and requires only one dose, is about 66.3% effective.

As state health officials have said, however, no vaccine is 100% effective. Between Feb. 1 and June 30, 2021, 656 “vaccine breakthrough cases” were reported in Alaska, representing about 0.2% of all fully vaccinated people in Alaska. Vaccine breakthrough cases refer to cases where someone was vaccinated and still contracted COVID-19.

A State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin from July 15 reported that, of those 656 cases, 17 people were hospitalized due to their COVID illness and two people died. The two individuals who died both had “substantial comorbidities.” In contrast, among people who were not fully vaccinated, there were 14,906 cases, 391 people hospitalized and 58 people dying during the same time frame.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance specific to whether or not someone is vaccinated. Someone is considered to be fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.

People who are fully vaccinated, the CDC says, can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing — except where required by certain laws or regulations. Fully vaccinated individuals also do not need to quarantine or get tested after being around someone who has COVID-19 unless the fully vaccinated person develops COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, should get tested and quarantine.

People who are not fully vaccinated should continue to follow COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including wearing a mask in indoor public places, social distancing from people outside of their household, getting vaccinated, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing their hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning high touch surfaces daily and monitoring their health daily.

COVID-19 tests and vaccines continue to be available on the Kenai Peninsula. A list of available vaccination appointments can be found on the state’s scheduling program at myhealth.alaska.gov. More information about COVID-19 in Alaska can be found on DHSS’ website at covid19.alaska.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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