A sticker promoting COVID mitigation measures is photographed at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (Clarion file)

A sticker promoting COVID mitigation measures is photographed at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (Clarion file)

COVID, year 2

Vaccines, new strains, protests and hospital overflows marked 2021’s volatile year

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the globe for the better part of the past two years, but 2021 drew more innovation — and illness — than in 2020.

The first Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID vaccines had already been administered in Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula in the first weeks of 2021, as cases were still trending downward from the November 2020 surge.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District kids headed back to class in person the second week of January after the Board of Education revised its “high risk” operations, which had previously prohibited students from attending school when COVID risk levels were high.

This came during the emergence of one of the first closely followed variants of concern — the United Kingdom B.1.1.7 strain — was detected in Alaska in December 2020.

By mid-February, however, Alaska was leading the country in vaccine rollout. Officials delivered vials by cargo plane, ferry, dog sled and snowmachine to reach even the most remote corners of the Last Frontier. Approximately 17.3% of eligible Alaskans 16 and older had received their first dose by Feb. 16, which was higher than the nationwide average of 11.5% at the time.

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID vaccine hit the market in the next few weeks. The state received its first shipment of the single-dose shot in early March, shortly before Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he would make vaccines available to all residents 16 and older. Alaska was the first state in the country to open COVID vaccine eligibility to everyone.

On April 13, the federal government recommended a pause on the J&J vaccine amid an increase in reports of adverse side effects, including blood clotting. The feds gave the go-ahead to begin administering the J&J again on April 23.

At the end of April, Dunleavy entered into a partnership with Canada, sharing doses of vaccine from Alaska in the hope that the Canadian government would ease restrictions at the border, the Associated Press reported on April 26. Residents and business owners on both sides of the Hyder, Alaska, and Stewart, British Columbia, border told the AP they struggled — as the towns are linked. Hyder is on the road system, but only through Stewart. Many Hyder residents were also sending their kids to school in Stewart, as well as crossing the border to get gas and groceries.

The Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration for 12- to 15-year-olds on May 12. By May 27, the state vaccination had risen steadily to about 52%.

There were minimal COVID cases reported in Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula in the early summer. On June 17, there were zero cases reported on the peninsula, as the full vaccination rate grew slowly, to 54% of Alaskans 12 and older.

But at the end of June, officials sequenced the first cases of the delta COVID strain, first detected in India in October 2020, according to the World Health Organization. There had already been 13 delta cases identified in Alaska by June 24, and officials were looking for signs of community spread as the second major wave of the pandemic began to take form. By Aug. 5, the Department of Health and Social Services announced the delta strain accounted for 90% of new COVID cases.

As the new school year approached in mid-August, the delta variant spread rapidly. KPBSD didn’t require universal masking when school started on Aug. 17. The new mitigation policy covered quarantine period and testing requirements, and largely came down to whether or not eligible students 12 and older had been fully vaccinated.

On Aug. 23, the Pfizer vaccine received full FDA approval for anyone 16 and older — the first of the three brands to get full FDA authorization. Pfizer was still approved for emergency use in kids 12 to 15, while the Moderna and J&J vaccines were approved for emergency use in anyone 18 and older.

To entice more Alaskans to get their COVID vaccines, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and the DHSS launched the “Give AK a Shot” incentive program the first week of September amid a continuing increase in cases and hospitalizations. The program — funded by the federal CARES Act grant — handed out over $784,000 cash and scholarship money to newly vaccinated residents by the beginning of November.

On Sept. 22, Dunleavy announced that his administration and the DHSS would contract temporary health care workers to help with Alaska’s COVID outbreak, as cases continued to rise and hospitals became inundated with patients. The program drew more than 400 workers to the state — 46 on the peninsula — and cost $87 million, reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The contracted health care staff are set to leave Alaska next week.

Officials with the DHSS also reported health care workers were facing increasing hostility in late September, when Alaska was logging the most COVID cases per capita in the country. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a press briefing on Sept. 23 that health care professionals had been spit at and received threatening mail, among other “attack(s).”

As the delta surge raged on, the CDC issued a new “urgent” advisory on Oct. 2 urging pregnant people to get vaccinated against COVID. The data showed that pregnant people with symptomatic COVID had a 70% increased risk of death.

The early winter also saw multiple COVID vaccine and mitigation measure protests, both nationwide and on the Kenai Peninsula — at city council meetings, outside the borough assembly building, at the “Y” intersection in Soldotna and at the front of Central Peninsula Hospital, among others. Demonstrators packed a Soldotna City Council meeting on Oct. 13 to voice their opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, declaring “medical liberty.”

October, as it turned out, was the deadliest month CPH has had throughout the whole pandemic. External Affairs Director Bruce Richards confirmed Thursday that the hospital broke its census number — 32 COVID inpatients and pushing 140% total occupancy — that month, as well as reported 16 COVID deaths in October out of 40 total since the pandemic began. Of the total COVID deaths at CPH, 40% occurred in October alone. The facility averaged four COVID deaths per week that month.

Early last month, as COVID deaths were still being reported on backlog from the state, the FDA and CDC approved the Pfizer vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds.

By Nov. 8, COVID hospitalizations at CPH dropped back down to under 11 as cases started falling from a plateau. Officials with the state said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the back half of the delta wave, just a few weeks before the omicron strain from South Africa was identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

The first omicron case was sequenced in Alaska just a few weeks ago on Dec. 13, with another omicron case reported Wednesday. Cases are still low in Alaska, but the Northeastern United States is seeing a steep uptick now. The AP reported early this week that omicron accounted for 73% of new COVID infections nationwide the prior week.

Health officials are continuing to encourage vaccination, and especially boosters, for all Alaskans 5 and older as they prepare for a potential omicron wave heading into the new year.

As of Wednesday, 60.2% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID, and another 67.4% had received at least one dose. On the Kenai Peninsula Wednesday, 57.2% of folks 5 and up were fully vaccinated and 62.5% had received at least one dose.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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