By Annie Berman
Alaska, in the midst of what the state epidemiologist described as one of the sharpest surges in the U.S., reported a second consecutive day of more than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections as overburdened hospitals continued to operate under intense stress levels.
The latest case count — 1,053 cases among Alaskans and people here from out of state — marks the second-highest single-day tally reported since the pandemic first began. The state set a new daily record of 1,095 cases a day earlier, on Wednesday.
At the same time the state is setting new case records, Alaska’s hospitals are grappling with a virus surge worse than what many other states are experiencing: Alaska is in the top five in the nation for new daily case rates and new hospitalizations over the past two weeks, according to a tracker compiled by The New York Times.
“Alaska is experiencing one of the sharpest surges of COVID-19 in the country right now,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, during a call with reporters on Thursday. “We’re more than double the national case rate right now.”
Alaska’s surge is driven by the highly contagious delta variant, which has pushed up case counts, hospitalizations and deaths around the country in recent months. But while other states have very recently begun to see plateauing case counts, Alaska is still reporting pandemic-high counts that show little sign of slowing.
“In terms of when this is going to level off, we don’t know,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of it’s going to depend on vaccination coverage rates as well as non-pharmaceutical interventions that our community members engage in.”
Few states have surpassed their winter-level surges the way Alaska has in recent weeks. Of those that have, fewer have overwhelmed their hospitals to the crisis levels Alaska is now experiencing.
Providence Alaska Medical Center doctors announced this week that the hospital — the largest in the state — has started rationing care under crisis-care protocols, a worst-case scenario that forces providers to prioritize patients most likely to recover. Limited resources at Alaska Native Medical Center are prompting longer waits and delayed surgeries. Alaska Regional Hospital is prioritizing surgeries for the most critical patients and postponing or rescheduled others.
Doctors, nurses and administrators around the state have described staffing shortages and an overburdened system trying to provide care for higher numbers of COVID-19 patients and non-COVID patients alike. Smaller outlying hospitals are struggling to transfer seriously ill people or scrambling to care for them in place.
Elsewhere in the country, hospitals in Idaho and Montana have also enacted crisis standards due to high numbers of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization.
In Alaska, health officials have described the state’s hospital capacity as more fragile than other states because of its isolated geography and smaller population. Facilities across the state typically run close to capacity during a typical summer due to high levels of trauma patients, and they also aren’t set up to deal with such high patient volumes for months at a time.
Because COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths lag a few weeks behind surges in cases, Alaska’s overburdened hospitals aren’t likely to see relief anytime soon.
By Thursday, a total of 206 COVID-positive patients were in hospitals statewide, according to state data. That’s a near-record level and far higher than hospitalizations over last winter’s peak. More than half of the current hospitalizations were concentrated in Anchorage, and included 34 people on ventilators. Patients with the virus accounted for nearly half the state’s intensive-care unit patients.
In all, one in five hospitalized Alaskans have COVID-19.
“To have 20% of your hospital filled with any one disease or ailment is a big deal,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said Thursday.
Zink encouraged Alaskans with less serious or longer-term health concerns to consider visiting urgent care or walk-up health clinics instead of overwhelmed emergency rooms.
Hospitals say virus hospitalization numbers are likely an undercount of the true impact of COVID-19, since they don’t include some long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but still need hospital care.
Of the 1,053 new cases reported Thursday, 1,027 involved residents and 26 involved nonresidents. Before this week, the state’s previous record for the most COVID-19 cases reported in a single day was the 906 cases reported on Dec. 4, 2020.
No new deaths were reported Thursday. Since March 2020, 453 Alaskans and 15 people from out of state who were in Alaska have died with COVID-19.
After assuming the title of most-vaccinated state earlier this year, Alaska on Thursday ranked 32nd per capita. By Thursday, 62.2% of eligible Alaskans had received at least one dose of vaccine and 56.8% were fully vaccinated, according to state data.
In an effort to convince more Alaskans to get vaccinated, the state health department and the Alaska Chamber recently launched a $49,000 weekly prize drawing for vaccine recipients. The first two winners were announced Thursday: Carin Kircher in Valdez (who won $49,000 in cash) and Ethan Benton in Kodiak (he won a $49,000 college scholarship; his legal guardian also will receive $10,000 for being vaccinated).
About 40% of Alaskans who got vaccinated last week entered the Give AK a Shot drawing, according to Kati Capozzi, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber.
Meanwhile, state officials say continued high numbers of new cases are leading to backlogs in contact tracing and data reporting.
Despite heavy testing demand, Alaska’s labs continue to report quick turnaround times for test results, according to Coleman Cutchins, a pharmacist with the state health department. The state is also doing well in terms of testing supplies, he said.
As of Thursday, the state’s seven-day average test positivity rate — the number of positive tests out of total performed — was 9.71%, a new record high since the pandemic began. Health officials say anything over 5% indicates a need for more testing.