Alaska sees spike in COVID-19
By Julia Lerner
Earlier this year, Alaska had the highest rate per capita of COVID-19 vaccinations. Now, though, the state has one of the highest rates per capita of daily COVID-19 cases.
Over the weekend, Alaska ranked third in the nation for the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita, coming in behind Tennessee and West Virginia, diagnosing more than 2,000 cases between Friday and Monday. As diagnoses across the state rise, hospitals and health care workers are scrambling to provide treatment.
Of the 5,837 new COVID cases diagnosed in the last week, 16 were discovered in Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region. Norton Sound Health Corporation identified seven new cases on Wednesday, September 15, four new cases on Thursday, and five over the weekend.
Of the seven cases identified on Wednesday, five were discovered in Shaktoolik, while two were discovered in Nome.
All four cases identified on Thursday, September 16, are in Shaktoolik.
Over the weekend, NSHC identified five new COVID cases in Nome. Four of the individuals are non-residents of the region, and one is a regional resident. One individual is a close contact of a former COVID-19 case, one is a community-spread case and the remaining three were travel-related.
There are currently 26 active COVID-19 cases in the region, including 15 in Shaktoolik, eight in Nome, one in Brevig Mission, one in Teller and one in Unalakleet.
Across the state, COVID-19 alert levels remain high, and NSHC is encouraging all regional residents to get vaccinated.
“It’s really important this year that we get as many people vaccinated against both COVID and the flu,” said NSHC Dr. Tim Lemaire. “We can protect ourselves against dangerous things like the flu and COVID. The vaccines will make travel safer and activities safer for kids.”
Lemaire works in NSHC’s COVID incident command and led the weekly COVID-19 conference call this week. He stressed the importance of getting vaccinated to protect those at higher risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms and long-COVID, including children and elders.
“Normally, we have a couple of elders every year who get infected by the flu and the respiratory problems that it causes, and we didn’t see that last year because we were socially distancing and wearing masks,” he said. “It’ll be important this year, more so, to get the vaccine” for COVID and for the flu.
Currently, children under the age of 12 are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, though Lemaire hopes that will change in the coming weeks.
“The data came out from the studies that Pfizer has been doing with kids ages 5-11, and that data looks really good,” he said during the weekly COVID-19 conference call. “It’s a safe vaccine still for kids. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, we’ll get a good answer, and we can start vaccinating our kids.”
NSHC has made booster shots of the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine available to anyone in the region who received their second dose more than six months ago.
As of Monday afternoon, there are only 16 ICU beds available in hospitals across the state, and the medical staff at the Providence Alaska Medical Center has begun rationing care.
“We are no longer able to provide the standard of care to each and every patient who needs our help,” wrote Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, the Chief of Staff at Providence Alaska Medical Center. “The acuity and number of patients now exceeds our resources and our ability to staff beds with skilled caregivers, like nurses and respiratory therapists.”
In the coming weeks, doctors and hospital staff are expecting hospitalizations to rise dramatically, Walkinshaw said.
“We anticipate an escalation in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the coming two to four weeks,” she wrote. “What is already a stressful situation could rapidly progress to a catastrophe.”
Many of the currently hospitalized individuals are unvaccinated. Dr. Lemaire stressed the importance of COVID-19 safety measures, like vaccinating and wearing a mask, to prevent further spread.
“There is a really low likelihood that a person who is vaccinated will get COVID,” Lemaire explained. “It is recommended, even if you’re vaccinated, to wear a mask indoors. If I have COVID and I’m wearing a mask, you’re protected to a much greater level. When we all wear masks, we’re all protected.”
There are currently no COVID-19 related deaths in the region, but COVID-19 deaths across the country have officially surpassed the death toll of the 1918 influenza epidemic. According to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University, more than 675,000 people in the United States have died of COVID, the estimated toll of the 1918 epidemic in the U.S.
Across Alaska, there have been 102,471 total COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including 5,837 in the last week. In the state, there have been 2,501 hospitalizations, including 198 currently hospitalized with COVID and 37 COVID patients are on ventilators. Across the state, only 16 ICU beds remain available. In Alaska, 474 people have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March, 2020.
In Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region, there have been 925 cases of COVID, including 16 cases diagnosed in the last week, and 12 total hospitalizations. There have been zero COVID-19 related deaths in the region since the pandemic began.