Health officials said during a press briefing Thursday that trends show encouraging data to support the plateau and potential drop in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but that Alaska isn’t in the clear yet.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that the downward trajectory provides a little bit of hope.
“In general, it is not looking as steep up, which is great,” she said. “We are cautiously optimistic at this time.”
Zink said that although data is encouraging, that doesn’t mean the pandemic is behind Alaskans yet.
“Just because we’re on the way down doesn’t mean that it’s over, doesn’t mean it can’t go back up, or that people can’t still get infected with COVID-19,” she said. “It’s clear that we are not out of the woods in many regards.”
Last week at this time, the state announced more than 1,000 new COVID cases, and estimated a seven-day rolling average of 1,161.7 cases per 100,000 people — surpassing the high threshold metric more than 10 times over.
On Thursday, the Department of Health and Social Services reported 863 new cases for a seven-day rolling average of 788.2 cases per 100,000 people.
The state is still, however, at a high risk for COVID transmission.
“We still have a lot of COVID circulating around,” Zink said Thursday.
Alaska, which has been suffering from its worst COVID surge since cases began increasing in mid-July, has spent weeks as the state with the highest number of new cases per capita in the country, according to New York Times data.
And with backlogged data producing larger-than-normal case and death counts, Alaskans have been struggling to understand just how much COVID has been present.
One consistent concern for health officials over the surge has been hospital capacity, and Zink said Thursday that it’s still an issue.
“Our hospital capacity continues to be strained with just the number of patients we have, but we have had a decrease in the number of patients currently with COVID-19 in the hospital,” she said.
Zink added that it seems too early to analyze whether or not COVID hospitalizations are dropping consistently at this time.
At Central Peninsula Hospital there were 16 COVID patients on Thursday morning — 13 unvaccinated — with four both in the intensive care unit and on ventilators. The hospital as a whole was operating at 98% capacity.
Among the five COVID deaths the state announced Thursday, two were Soldotna residents — one man in his 50s and one in his 70s.
That pushed the statewide death total to 569 since the pandemic began, contributing to the more than 700,000 nationwide COVID deaths the New York Times reported Thursday.
Among the newly reported 863 cases, there were 38 in Kenai, 34 in Soldotna, 11 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North, eight in Homer, five in both Anchor Point and Seward, two in Sterling and one each in Fritz Creek and Nikiski.
State officials continue to urge Alaskans to get vaccinated against COVID in order to reduce their risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
“Prevention is our best tool, by getting vaccinated as soon as you possibly can if you haven’t,” Zink said Thursday.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, now marketed as the Comirnaty, received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for anyone 16 and older in August.
Pfizer is still available via emergency use authorization (EUA) in accordance to FDA guidelines for kids 12 to 15 years old, and NPR reported Thursday that Pfizer has requested authorization for its vaccine in kids 5 to 11 years old.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shots have an EUA for anyone 18 and older.
Additionally, the FDA approved a third dose of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use in immunocompromised people in August.
And in September, the FDA approved a booster dose for the Pfizer shot. They are available for anyone 65 years or older, anyone 18 and older living in long-term care facilities, anyone 18 and older with underlying health conditions and anyone 18 and older working in high-risk settings.
Primary care providers can determine eligibility for an initial vaccine series, as well as immunocompromised third shots and booster doses.
Across the state, 58.5% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Thursday. Another 63.7% had received at least one shot.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind many other regions.
As of Tuesday, 49.1% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 53% had received at least one dose. The only census area to have a lower vaccination rate was the Matanuska-Susitna region on Friday, at 41.4%.
Full vaccination rates may be an overestimation as booster doses start to roll out, according to the DHSS.
To find a local vaccine provider, visit the DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.
“(We) encourage people to take those precautions and also get vaccinated so we don’t have to go through these big surges and bumps again moving forward,” Zink said.