Data from the state of Alaska show a steep increase in COVID-19 cases in January 2022. (Department of Health and Social Services)

Data from the state of Alaska show a steep increase in COVID-19 cases in January 2022. (Department of Health and Social Services)

Omicron drives COVID spike in Alaska as officials point to decreasing cases in eastern US

On Friday, the seven-day average number of daily cases skyrocketed to 2,234.6 per 100,000 people

Health officials Thursday said current trends indicate COVID-19 cases may soon plateau in the United States, even as new infections are rising at their fastest rate yet.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the Alaska state epidemiologist, said during a media briefing that other countries are reporting a dip in new COVID cases, as well as the eastern states in the Lower 48.

“When we look at the United States we know that the East Coast states got hit hardest first with omicron, and then it progressed west,” he said. “We really didn’t start to see our surge until probably close to two weeks after the East Coast started to see their surge, so I suspect we’ll be behind them.”

According to data from the New York Times on Friday, the northeastern United States had reported a steep drop in COVID cases since Jan. 11. But in Alaska, new infections are higher than they’ve ever been.

On Friday, the seven-day average number of daily cases skyrocketed to 2,234.6 per 100,000 people, which surpasses the threshold for high risk over 20 times.

And health officials said Thursday that it’s likely COVID cases are being underreported.

“We’ve known since the beginning of this pandemic that we are not identifying every case, and we know that that has been increasing over time as people are doing more at-home testing and other testing options,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during the briefing.

The state Department of Health and Social Services on Friday reported 6,532 new COVID cases sequenced from Jan. 19 through Jan. 20.

New cases reported Wednesday included 96 in Kenai, 93 in Soldotna, 67 in Homer, 21 in Seward, 20 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South, 16 in Anchor Point, 11 in Nikiski, six in both the Kenai Peninsula Borough North and Sterling, and one in Fritz Creek.

An overwhelming majority of new infections have been caused by the omicron variant.

Jayme Parker, the section chief of the Alaska public health laboratories, said during a recent public science session that during the Christmas holiday about 53% of new COVID cases being sequenced were a blend of omicron and delta. By the New Year’s holiday that number increased to about 77% omicron, and as of a week and half ago, 91% of new cases in the state were due to the omicron variant.

Because many omicron cases have reportedly been less symptomatic, and because of the increasing availability of at-home COVID test kits, state officials with the DHSS are encouraging people to use hospitalizations and death metrics to determine the severity of the state’s COVID spread.

There were a total of 153 COVID-related hospitalizations in Alaska as of Friday, with five of those patients on ventilators. A week prior, on Jan. 14, there were 112 COVID hospitalizations with five patients on ventilators.

Health experts widely agree getting vaccinated against COVID will help slow the spread and protect people from severe illness, hospitalization and death.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for anyone 18 and older.

In addition to a primary series — two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Janssen vaccine — experts are strongly encouraging booster shots to protect against omicron.

Health officials said studies indicate a person with their primary series is expected to be about 35% protected against omicron, but 75% protected with a booster dose.

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending Pfizer boosters for anyone 12 and older at least five months after the primary series. Additionally, Moderna boosters are recommended for anyone 18 and older at least six months after a primary series.

Janssen boosters are approved for anyone 18 and older at least two months after initial vaccination, although the FDA announced it was revising its fact sheet for the Janssen shot to include more data on the risks of blood clotting associated with the vaccine.

According to the DHSS Facebook page, the state is recommending people with a primary Janssen vaccine to get either a Pfizer or Moderna booster for more robust protection.

Getting a vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

Many organizations on the central peninsula — including Walmart, Walgreens, the Kenai Fire Department and Kenai Public Health — offer vaccines.

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 is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

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 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.

Testing locations

Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.

In Kenai, testing is available at Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center and Capstone Clinic. At-home test kits are also available for free at Kenai Public Health.

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.

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