COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

State officials urge vaccination as omicron spreads in US

Omicron was first identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

State health officials on Thursday urged Alaskans to take preventative measures against COVID-19, as the new omicron variant has already been detected in other states across the country.

Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said that while another variant wasn’t unexpected, there’s still a lot of unknowns about omicron.

“We know a lot about COVID; we’ve been expecting a variant,” Zink said. “It’s just (that) this was a pretty large genetic shift.”

Omicron was first identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

According to Zink in a press briefing earlier this week, the specific mutations of the strain as it relates to the virus’ spike protein are concerning, as the virus uses the spikes to enter a person’s cells. The spike protein parts are where omicron’s mutations are found.

On Thursday, Zink said health officials still need to monitor the variant to see how it will affect people.

“We also don’t know how efficacious our vaccines or our boosters or our treatments are … so we’ll continue to follow that as we move forward,” she said.

Although Alaska hadn’t reported any cases of the omicron variant as of Thursday, Zink said taking preventative measures — which include vaccination, masking, distancing and ventilation — is important.

As of Thursday evening, California, Minnesota, New York, Hawaii and Colorado have detected omicron cases.

“Even if our vaccines proved to be slightly less efficacious against this variant, imperfect protection is better than no protection at all,” she said.

As of Thursday, 55.5% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated, and another 61% had received at least one dose. The Kenai Peninsula Borough lags behind the statewide average, with 47% of people 5 and older fully vaccinated and 51% with at least one shot as of Thursday.

COVID cases and hospitalizations have been trending downward statewide, but Alaska remained at a high COVID transmission alert level Thursday — with an estimated rolling average of 234.2 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

The state reported 349 new cases and two new deaths Thursday.

The case count included eight in Kenai, two in both the Kenai Peninsula Borough South and Soldotna, and one each in Anchor Point, Homer and Seward.

Statewide there were 75 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Thursday, with seven patients on ventilators.

Zink said data still shows that unvaccinated people are being hospitalized for COVID more than people who are fully vaccinated, and emphasized the importance of the approved vaccines especially as the omicron variant has begun circulating in the U.S.

“What we’re recommending to Alaskans is that they get vaccinated if they have not yet been vaccinated,” Zink said. “We’ve got this. We have the tools, we just need to move forward.”

Getting a vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

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.

Pfizer and Moderna boosters and additional doses are also recommended for anyone 18 and older and six months out from their second dose. The J&J vaccine booster is recommended two months after the primary dose.

Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in 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 is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays only. 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 camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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