This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. (CDC)

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. (CDC)

Virus ‘affecting children in a way we didn’t see before’

More kids are contracting COVID amid delta surge

State health officials said during a press briefing Thursday that pediatric COVID-19 cases are increasing as the delta variant makes its way through Alaska.

Dr. Mishelle Nace, a pediatrician in Fairbanks, said more kids are ending up in the hospital during this summer’s surge than the previous large wave last winter.

“We are seeing a difference with the recent surge and delta,” she said. “It is affecting children in a way we didn’t see before.”

And with hospitals across the state juggling patients in already overfilled facilities, health care workers have had to make adjustments, Nace said. If a pediatric patient needs a higher level of care only accessible in Anchorage, for example, hospitals will work in tandem to transfer children to different parts of the state.

“We’re doing different kinds of exchanges,” she said. “We might give them our sickest, smallest baby … and we might take a 34-weeker who might be in a more controlled (state).”

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Thursday that pediatric patients make up 19.4% of all Alaska COVID cases to date. But in July and August, that average raised to 26.1%. Pediatric patients also make up 0.21% of COVID hospitalizations to date, she said.

State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said although pediatric cases are on the rise, generally children aren’t seen with the same illness severity.

“The proportion of cases among the pediatric population that are severe doesn’t appear, so far, to be different in the delta era,” he said.

Central Peninsula Hospital saw its first pediatric COVID inpatient in the emergency room last week, External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said Wednesday, emphasizing the staff has seen “plenty of COVID-positive kids.”

Boroughs with a higher proportion of vaccinated adult residents are also seeing a higher rate of vaccinated children, Zink said Thursday.

Juneau, she said, has a high proportion of vaccinated residents. As of Friday, 79.8% of Juneau residents 12 and older had been fully vaccinated.

“What’s been pretty remarkable about Juneau is just how few kids in the 12 to 18 are testing positive for school,” Zink said. “Talking to that school district, it just sounds like school is just going on … and kids are having a blast.”

The Kenai Peninsula still lags in terms of vaccination rates. On Friday, the borough reported just 48.1% of its residents 12 and up had been fully vaccinated, while 51.6% had received at least one dose.

The only region with a lower vaccination rate is the Matanuska-Susitna borough, which just broke 40%.

And COVID cases are continuing to rise throughout the state.

McLaughlin said Alaska is experiencing one of the sharpest surges in the country right now.

The state reported 893 new COVID cases — 93 of which were on the peninsula — Friday. The state also announced another death, of an Anchorage man in his 60s, and 24 new hospitalizations statewide.

“Alaska is joined by Wyoming, Tennessee, West Virginia and South Carolina as having the highest case rates in the nation right now,” he said.

Even so, McLaughlin said hospitalization and death rates haven’t spiked with the same severity as in other states.

Zink reiterated that vaccines are important, especially in protecting susceptible children.

“What you can clearly see here is a lot more cases in communities with lower vaccine rates,” she said. “So again, vaccines are our best tool to keep kids in school, keep people out of the hospital and keep us all moving forward.”

Getting a COVID vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

As an incentive to get the jab, the DHSS and Alaska Chamber of Commerce launched a lottery program for newly vaccinated eligible residents that offers weekly winners a prize of at least $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, 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.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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