RN Rachel Verba (right) administers a dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Chris Michelson (left) on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Bruce Richards/CPH)

RN Rachel Verba (right) administers a dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Chris Michelson (left) on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Bruce Richards/CPH)

COVID cases rise on peninsula

As COVID-19 vaccination rates stagnate, case numbers on the Kenai Peninsula increase and the COVID delta variant continues to spread in Alaska, Central Peninsula Hospital is still encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Forty-four new COVID-19 cases were reported on the Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday and Thursday, with the borough considered to be a “high” risk level by the state.

Individually, the Kenai Peninsula’s central, southern and eastern regions were all at “high” risk level, per the COVID-19 dashboard created by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. That dashboard evaluates risk levels of each region of the peninsula and formerly impacted whether or not the district’s 42 schools operated remotely or in person.

Central Peninsula Hospital External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said Friday that CPH was treating four inpatients who were COVID-19 positive and that the number of COVID patients the hospital is treating has “definitely ticked up” in recent weeks.

“We haven’t seen these types of inpatient numbers since May,” Richards said.

While not every person who comes into CPH’s Emergency Department is sick enough to be hospitalized, Richards said he’s observed that more people are coming in with COVID symptoms. Everyone admitted to the hospital is tested for COVID-19, while those in the emergency department are only tested if they are symptomatic.

“I think everybody kind of reached this point of complacency where things settled down and the case numbers were low and the vaccination rates were going up,” Richards said.

CPH’s Heritage Place Skilled Nursing facility closed to visitors earlier this week after two employees tested positive for COVID-19. Residents were able to hug their visitors in March for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. As of Friday, Richards said, 94% of the residents at Heritage Place are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s compared to 60% of Heritage Place staff.

Richards said that while it’s true that vaccinated people can still catch COVID — noting that they’ve seen such cases among community members and CPH staff — it happens rarely and people who still get sick do not have as severe of an illness.

“You can still get it, but you’re not going to get seriously sick in most cases,” Richards said.

Data from a recent state epidemiology bulletin backs that up.

Between Feb. 1 and June 30, 2021, 656 “vaccine breakthrough” cases were reported in Alaska. Vaccine breakthrough cases refer to cases where someone was vaccinated and still contracted COVID-19.

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.

As of June 30, 0.2% of fully vaccinated Alaskans contracted COVID after being vaccinated, representing about 4.2% of all COVID cases reported between Feb. 1 and June 30.

“No vaccines are 100% effective; therefore, cases among a small percentage of vaccinated people are expected and are classified as vaccine breakthrough (VB) cases,” that bulletin says.

What Richards said CPH is particularly concerned about is the spread of the delta variant, which has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it tends to be more transmissible, cause more severe disease and significantly reduce neutralization by antibodies.

“It’s very transmissible and it’s going to hit people that aren’t vaccinated,” Richards said.

The Alaska Sequencing Consortium’s latest COVID Genomic Surveillance Situation Report, dated July 14, spoke directly to a rise in delta variant cases. To date, 58 delta variant COVID cases have been identified in “multiple locations” across Alaska, with the CDC data showing that 58% of cases nationwide were attributed to the delta variant for the two-week period ending July 3.

The delta variant was first identified in Alaska on May 30, 2021, according to the report. Clinton Bennett, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, confirmed Friday that at least one case of the delta variant had been confirmed in Alaska’s “Gulf Coast region,” which includes the Kenai Peninsula.

State epidemiologists encourage people 12 and older to “seek vaccination promptly,” and those with COVID-19 symptoms to take a COVID test regardless of vaccination status. People with weakened immune systems should talk to their health care provider about whether or not to continue practicing COVID-19 mitigation protocols such as wearing a mask and social distancing.

Those concerns come amid stagnant vaccination rates and growing COVID-19 case numbers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

As of Friday, the peninsula ranked 10th out of 11 Alaska regions for percentage of people 12 and older who were fully vaccinated, at 44%. The only borough with a smaller percentage was the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where 36% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

Statewide, 56% of Alaskans 12 and older have received at least one dose of their COVID-19 vaccine, while 51% have received both. COVID-19 vaccines continue to be available free of charge to any Alaskan 12 and older, with appointments open at multiple locations throughout the borough. Appointments can be found and made at myhealth.alaska.gov.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough was considered to be at “high” alert level, with 13.2 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period. Two hundred eighty-four new COVID-19 cases were reported in Alaska between July 14 and July 15, including 44 on the Kenai Peninsula, representing 37 residents and seven nonresidents.

Richards said that CPH has not closed down its COVID-19 incident command, via which hospital staff know their role in the event that cases continue to rise.

In the meantime, Richards said the hospital continues to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The people that are vaccinated are not the ones that are being hospitalized and are not the ones that are super sick,” he said.

More information about COVID-19 in Alaska can be found on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ website at dhss.alaska.gov.

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

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