State health officials said Thursday that COVID-19 cases seem to be falling, after nearly four months of the deadliest wave of virus spread that Alaska — and much of the country — had seen.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during the press briefing that things are looking better, but that Alaskans need to be active in their response to the pandemic.
“We hit a plateau for a while in Alaska, but we really had kind of a downward trend recently,” Zink said. “The pandemic continues to have all sorts of twists and turns, and just because it turns downward doesn’t mean it’s going to continue downward or stay there. It takes active work from Alaskans: getting vaccinated, distancing, masking.”
Alaska spent weeks as the state with the highest number of COVID cases per capita, according to New York Times data, but has since dropped. Now officials are seeing cases pick up again in Midwestern and Southwestern states like Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.
The Department of Health and Social Services announced 445 new statewide COVID cases Thursday, which included eight in Soldotna, four in Kenai, two in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North and one in both the Kenai Peninsula Borough South and Sterling.
There were also 142 COVID-related hospitalizations Thursday, with 18 of the patients on ventilators.
Even as cases have decreased, Alaska remained at a high COVID transmission alert level Thursday — with an estimated rolling average of 399.6 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.
The threshold for high alert level is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people in the span of one week.
Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said even though cases are falling here, there’s no guarantee that Alaska is out of the woods.
“I think we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re still on that downward trend,” she said. “I think we’re all hoping that we’ll be down in this lull for a while and maybe even flatter, but it’s hard to know, especially when we see what’s going on in the Lower 48.”
State officials reiterated that now is the best time to either begin a primary COVID vaccine series or determine booster eligibility.
“This is not only an individual protection to get vaccinated, but a community protection,” Zink said Thursday. “The more COVID we have spreading, the more cases we’re going to see both in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, and why we really lean on communities to do what we can to collectively help care for each other.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shots are approved for anyone 18 and older.
Pfizer and Moderna boosters and additional doses are also available for certain high-risk populations. Anyone who received the single-shot J&J vaccine is recommended to get a booster of any brand.
Zink said most Alaskans, even those under 65, are likely eligible for a booster dose.
“Honestly in Alaska, we’ve had so much COVID spreading that if you’re 18 and above … you probably meet criteria for a booster shot just based on previous guidance,” she said.
Primary care providers and vaccine clinicians can also determine eligibility.
As of Thursday, more than 91,000 Alaskans had already received a booster dose.
Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a physician with the state, said the state is giving booster shots to seniors at an impressive rate.
“Currently, for 65 and older in Alaska, (of) those (who) had received their primary series, we have 51.4% that have received their booster now,” she said. “That’s compared to 36.6% nationally a couple days ago. So yes, we are doing very well.”
Zink said the health community is still learning about COVID vaccine efficacy every day.
“Just because a booster is recommended doesn’t mean that we’re going to need to get boosters every six months or forever,” she said. “We just have a lot of COVID spreading and we’re seeing waning immunity over those first two.”
Zink said maybe the COVID shots will be administered in a three-dose series, or require a booster every five years.
“We don’t know as of yet,” she said. “We’ll continue to follow and watch it, but right now the data shows that … you start to get some waning immunity, and so why not take the opportunity to protect yourself, your family and your loved ones?”
AS of Thursday 55% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated, and another 60% had received at least one dose.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough remains second-to-lowest in COVID vaccine coverage, with 46% of residents 5 and up fully inoculated. The only census region with a lower vaccine rate on Thursday was the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, at 39%.
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including Walmart, Walgreens, the Kenai Fire Department and Kenai Public Health, 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. The clinic has extended its hours to Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 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. The Seward Community Health Center at 417 First Avenue is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays only. Bring a face covering and photo ID.
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.