COVID-19 is the third-highest underlying cause of death among Alaskans this year so far, according to health officials with the state Department of Health and Social Services.
The virus accounted for about 7.5% of all underlying causes of death after death certificate review, following heart disease at 15.7% and cancer at 18.3%.
Rebecca Topol, the chief of health analytics and vital records with the state, said during a press briefing Thursday that while the year-to-date statistics indicate COVID as a significant underlying cause of death in 2021, reporting a fatality isn’t a black-and-white process.
“Say you get COVID, you have pneumonia, then you have acute respiratory distress and then you die from that,” Topol said. “So just from getting infected with COVID … that perhaps got worse because of the COVID and that’s what caused the death. So that’s what we’re talking about when we say underlying.”
Topol said it’s complicated to determine a specific cause of death with some cases.
“Pretty much all deaths are from more than one cause, so it’s not as simple sometimes,” she said.
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said there are caveats to reporting causes of death.
“We don’t have all the death certificates in — these are subject to change,” she said Thursday.
Zink said reporting causes of death is “luminary reporting” that includes “preliminary information.”
Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a physician with the state, said COVID affects people’s bodies in many different ways, which can also impact a death certificate review. She said the virus often shuts down an individual’s organs, such as their kidneys.
“So as these death certificates are filled out, we try to do the best job on capturing kind of what the final demise of the individual was, and how each part … played into that,” Rabinowitz said.
The state has reported 75 new COVID deaths this week alone — some recent and others who died as far back as April. The newest one reported Thursday was a Kenai Peninsula woman in her 60s.
Thursday’s new COVID death has contributed to the 668 total deaths in the state and over 733,000 nationwide. The number of people who have died of COVID in the United States is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the state of Alaska — 733,391 according to the 2020 census.
Zink said Thursday that although new COVID hospitalizations and cases seem to be plateauing, Alaska is still at high risk for transmission.
“In general (there’s) just still a lot of COVID spreading throughout the state,” she said. “We have just over 127,000 cases total, our percent positivity is just over 10%, (which) you can see (is) higher than that November surge.”
There were 1,024 positive COVID cases, which result in an estimated seven-day rolling average of 762.24 cases per 100,000 people across the state.
The threshold for high alert level is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people. The state has surpassed that metric more than seven times over.
Thursday’s new case count included 31 in Soldotna, 23 in Kenai, 13 in Sterling, seven in Homer, five in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North, four in Anchor Point and three in Nikiski.
Statewide there were 245 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Thursday, with 30 of them on ventilators.
At Central Peninsula Hospital there were 21 COVID patients on Thursday morning — 17 of them unvaccinated — with six in the intensive care unit and four on ventilators. The hospital as a whole was operating at 116% capacity.
Zink said Thursday that getting a COVID vaccine is the best way for Alaskans to protect themselves against the virus.
“It’s just great to see every week more people choosing to get vaccinated,” she said. “(We’re) really hoping to continue to increase those numbers as that is our best tool moving forward to minimize this pandemic.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is available for anyone 12 and older, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are available for anyone 18 and older.
Additional doses of Pfizer for immunocompromised individuals, as well as other high-risk populations are also available.
Primary care providers can determine vaccine eligibility.
Across the state, 59.6% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Thursday. Another 64.5% had received at least one shot.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind many other regions.
As of Thursday, 49.9% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 53.8% had received at least one dose. The only census area to have a lower vaccination rate was the Matanuska-Susitna region on Thursday, at 42.8%.
Since some Alaskans have received booster doses, the DHSS issued a disclaimer that vaccine rate data may be an overestimation.
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
As an incentive to get the shots, the DHSS and Alaska Chamber of Commerce launched a lottery program for newly vaccinated eligible residents that offers weekly winners a prize of $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.
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. Starting Sept. 14, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-through 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 email@example.com.