COVID-19 hospitalizations are still on the rise in Alaska, health officials said during a public science forum Wednesday, even as reported cases have been decreasing over recent weeks.
“Unfortunately, we are continuing to see this surge of patients being hospitalized,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said. “We were hopeful in this downward trend, but you can see it’s kind of popped back up here.”
In early October, officials with the Department of Health and Social Services said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the falling case rates. Zink emphasized on Wednesday that COVID hospitalization and death reporting tend to lag behind the cases.
“We know that hospitalizations and deaths can very much lag behind cases,” she said Wednesday. “Sometimes we see that more in our data than we do, and other times (it) really depends on people’s testing patterns.”
Zink said in general, however, cases seem to be tapering off a bit.
The state announced two more COVID deaths and 567 new positive cases Wednesday.
Tuesday’s new COVID deaths have contributed to the 690 total in the state and over 740,000 nationwide according to the New York Times. The number of people who have died of COVID in the United States now exceeds the entire population of the state of Alaska, which was 733,391 according to the 2020 census.
Alaska remained at a high alert level Wednesday — with an estimated rolling average of 658.5 cases per 100,000 people across the state cumulatively 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. The state has surpassed that metric more than six times over.
The new case count included 15 in Homer, seven in Anchor Point, six in Soldotna, five in Kenai, three in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South, two in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North and one each in Fritz Creek and Nikiski.
Statewide there were 246 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Tuesday, with 33 of them on ventilators.
Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna broke a record for single-day COVID hospitalizations on Monday this week with 31 total patients, 28 of which were not vaccinated against the virus.
On Wednesday the facility was down slightly to 24 COVID inpatients — 21 of them unvaccinated — with five in the intensive care unit and four on ventilators.
CPH was operating at 127% capacity with 62 total patients Wednesday — the record for hospital census. The facility only has 49 regularly-licensed beds.
Zink said Wednesday that Alaska is still experiencing the highest number of new COVID cases per capita in the country, followed closely by Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Idaho.
“We have been seeing a bit of a plateauing … with an up-and-down seesaw over the past six weeks or so,” she said. “If you look at this week compared to last week, currently we have about 13% (case) decrease from last week. Unfortunately, we continue to see quite a few hospitalizations and deaths.”
Zink reiterated that Alaskans have the opportunity to prevent serious illness and death from the virus by getting vaccinated.
“Just remember prevention works,” she said Wednesday. “We are not powerless.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, now marketed as Comirnaty, received full approval by the Food and Drug Administration for anyone 16 and older in August. Pfizer is still available via emergency use authorization in accordance to FDA guidelines for kids 12 to 15 years old.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shots are FDA approved for emergency use for anyone 18 and older.
The FDA also approved a third dose of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use in immunocompromised people in August.
Additionally, 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, 60.1% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID as of Wednesday. Another 64.9% had received at least one shot.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind many other regions.
As of Wednesday, 50.3% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 54.1% had received at least one dose. The only census area to have a lower vaccination rate was the Matanuska-Susitna region on Wednesday, at 43.3%.
Since some Alaskans have received booster doses, the DHSS issued a disclaimer that vaccine rate data may be an overestimation.
Health care officials at the state highly recommend the vaccine to prevent serious illness and death altogether, but there are a few approved COVID treatments authorized by the FDA.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir) as a COVID treatment for adults and some children. Additionally, the FDA has issued an emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibody intravenous infusions for adults and most children 12 and older.
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 and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.