COVID-19 cases in Alaska have been on the rise through September, although fewer Alaskans have been tested for the virus that causes the highly infectious disease.
This week marked nearly two weeks of triple-digit daily increases as health officials say COVID-19 has picked up speed through community spread, especially in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and northern Alaska.
The drop in testing isn’t necessarily surprising after levels peaked this summer at national highs, as thousands of incoming fish workers and travelers are required to test skyrocketing counts.
Health officials say the strategy may backfire.
Someone with COVID-19 is more contagious two days before they detect symptoms and two days later – and 20% to 40% of people with the virus may not have any symptoms, according to Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. . That’s why it’s important to test as much as possible: to make sure positive cases are detected before the virus spreads to vulnerable populations like aged care centers or leads to larger outbreaks that can really close things down.
Zink receives angry emails from skeptical tests, asks questions on city hall forums, and listens to health workers. Some call the virus a hoax or label the test a “DNA biopsy” they don’t want to be a part of.
Zink also experiences first-person skeptics in the ER shifts who still work at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center near Wasilla: patients who refuse a test because there’s no way to have COVID-19, or say they’d rather put in quarantine at home rather than being one. subjected to that nasal swab.
“I don’t know how widespread it is … we don’t have a good poll on that,” he said in an interview last week. “But I know our testing has gone down, it’s not the supply chain and our positivity rate has gone up. So these are the objective things I have to work on.”
An Anchorage business owner who did not want to be identified said he was skeptical of the amount of tests done on people without symptoms that then test positive and increase case rates without being sick.
For him, swabbing what could be allergy symptoms, or even no symptoms, seems pointless, especially if a new case adds ammunition for closing down businesses that destroy financial and personal lives, sometimes even to the point of suicide.
But he also said he would be tested if he had clear symptoms.
For others, there’s no reason to take the test, as stated by a viral post that hit social media in mid-September.
A member of OpenAlaska’s private Facebook group shared the unmasked post by British conspiracy theorist David Icke. The group has 7,100 members who tend to push for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions like mask mandates, school closures, and corporate capacity limits.
“Can people just stop taking the test? Do you realize that you are increasing the problem and taking us to a second block? Are you giving the government the number of cases and the powers to take us to a winter lockdown? Just stop the test and it will disappear overnight … “, states Icke’s post.” If you are well enough to take you to an analysis center then you are absolutely fine, stay home for 2 weeks just to be safe, eat right and get your vitamins and then move on! “
The post got 89 likes and almost 20 comments in favor, even from some people who chose to stay at home rather than test themselves.
Resistance to the test is understandable, said Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and member of the affiliated faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage. People might fear the outcome and the consequences it would have on the workplace, employability or school.
“However, in the long run, unless people who have symptoms of COVID are tested, we can’t control the epidemic and, ultimately, it harms us all by spreading the epidemic further,” Hennessy said last week. “So I think taking the test is an important civic responsibility. And it’s a step people have to take, even if it can be personally uncomfortable for them.”
Statewide, COVID-19 test levels dropped from a high of more than 130,300 in July to just under about 74,000 in September, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. More recently, weekly test averages have fallen from nearly 24,000 in late August to just under 21,000 in late September.
But now, perhaps because more people are experiencing symptoms as the virus gains ground, or perhaps because increasing case numbers are making them more alert, test levels are climbing again.
Municipal testing sites in Anchorage started seeing an increase in people wanting to get tested about two weeks ago, officials say. First, the test volume increased by about 25%. Last week it rose 75% from the fairly stable numbers in August.
The Fairbanks Memorial Hospital lab has processed more tests than it has seen in recent months, up to 250 tests per day, according to Cassandra Khesed, director of lab services.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference, which serves 42 tribes and has clinics in 26 villages in interior Alaska, performed the most tests last week, according to Alisa Alexander, senior medical officer. At the same time, he said, they also achieved a record number of positive test results.
Alexander had not heard of a test resistance, but said several patients tested positive with extremely mild or non-typical COVID-19 symptoms.
In Mat-Su, where the Capstone Clinic operates drive-thru test sites, more people were tested in September than in August, partly because schools here opened in late August, according to co-owner Dr. Wade Erickson. Testing was also underway at Capstone’s Kenai site.
“I can’t find anyone who refuses the test,” Erickson said. “They are more than happy to take the test.”
Even now, Alaska’s test rates remain among the best in the country.
Alaska has run nearly half a million tests, a number that reflects an aggressive testing strategy, but also the thousands of summer seafood workers and travelers required to undergo multiple tests to meet state mandates intended to protect the state. from people who import COVID-19 from Outside.
All those relatively healthy people who had to undergo the test reduced the state test positivity rate, the number of positive results out of the total run was used to assess whether there are enough tests to stop the spread of the virus.
Now, while we’re still one of the most tested states in the country, our test positivity rates are climbing towards the 5% alert level that health authorities consider the bar indicating not enough testing. Alaska’s goal is to keep that level below 2%, given our limited health care and isolation capabilities.
The statewide positivity rate as of Tuesday was 4.09 percent, nearly the highest ever seen in Alaska. That number stayed below 2% for most of August. The national average on Monday was 4.8%.
Other measurements of the virus remain relatively positive. Fifty-eight Alaskans have died from COVID-19, the lowest number of virus-related deaths per capita of any state, but a number that has increased dramatically in recent weeks, partly due to delays in reporting.
So far, the number of people admitted to hospital with the virus has remained fairly stable – even declining recently – even as Anchorage officials say they see more elderly patients at greater risk of serious illness or death. They fear the current spike in cases will threaten critical care capacity this fall.
In general, health officials say, they are finding it easier to treat the virus now than when the pandemic started. There are adequate supplies of masks and other protective clothing.
These are the perks the state lacked in March, Zink said.
The downside, he said, is desperation and misinformation: “Why are we testing ourselves? Why is this also happening ?? “- generated by months of restrictions and limits.
“The longer this pandemic lasts, for very natural reasons, it is difficult to resist,” Zink said. “And so I think this is the outgoing tide we are fighting.”