Coronavirus cases in Alaska are at an all-time high, as evidenced by several red flag indicators.
Now local and state officials, including Governor Mike Dunleavy, say they are watching closely to see what COVID-19 will do, especially when it comes to people who get sick enough to need hospitalization.
On Monday, Alaska reported 194 new resident cases, setting a new daily record. The last time the state saw many cases in one day was in late July, a peak blamed in part on delays in reporting. Monday marked the twelfth consecutive day, new daily case counts topped 1
But that summer peak of cases in July stabilized, epidemiologist Janet Johnston of the Anchorage Department of Health said in an interview Monday.
That’s not what’s happening now.
“Last week, it looked like we were going the way we were in July and the corners were pretty parallel,” said Johnston. “But now we are continuing to rise. And it seems that a large part of the problem is that people have relaxed their vigilance over things like wearing masks and keeping their distance as we move inside.”
Fifteen of the new cases on Monday were reported in the North Pole, the city southeast of Fairbanks with more than 200 confirmed cases since March, where the city mayor was quarantined at home on the top floor of his home in the afternoon. .
Mayor Mike Welsh said his wife tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday. She isolated herself downstairs.
Welsh said he just spoke on the phone with Dr Anne Zink, the chief medical officer of the state, who will “send a team here tomorrow” to handle the rapidly growing cases in his region. His most pressing concern at the moment: to ensure that the North Pole’s main constituency has been thoroughly cleaned up ahead of Tuesday’s local elections.
“I think we’re all stumbling upon this,” he said.
Cases are increasing fastest in Anchorage, Fairbanks and northwest Alaska, but the community is spread across the state, officials say.
In Anchorage, the continuing high number of cases delayed the reopening of in-person learning schools and led to prolonged capacity limitations of bars and restaurants. Across the state, the increase in cases has resulted in the closure of schools and the closure of villages.
This week, Alaska hit an all-time high for the 14-day average COVID-19 case rate with more than 16 cases per 100,000 as of Monday, state officials have warned. This results in “widespread transmission in the community with many undetected cases and frequent and discrete outbreaks”.
Monday’s state test positivity rate also surpassed 4% for the first time since the pandemic began in March. Public health officials said that if that number exceeds 5 percent, that may indicate high transmission in the community and insufficient testing.
“We are worried that there is a lot of viruses in the state right now,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr Anne Zink, said in an interview last week. “This is not the place I would like to enter in the fall and winter to be totally honest.”
Anchorage city officials last week described regular clusters of cases in assisted living centers where some of the most vulnerable in the state can be infected by staff who collect the virus outside of work. This week, Johnston pointed out that community behavior is changing – and the change of seasons – not these bigger outbreaks that are driving the spread.
“What is mentioned most frequently (in contact tracking reports) are activities with family and friends,” he said.
“The days are getting shorter, it gets cooler and there is more mixing in it,” he added. “And it seems to me that this is what the great driver is.”
Fairbanks has the state’s highest case rates at 25.5 per 100,000 and the highest test positivity of 10%, local health professionals say.
A Fairbanks school that gradually introduced a group of 40 high-need students to in-person learning in mid-September closed for all classes except online classes on Monday after five people at Ladd Elementary tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks, according to Yumi McCulloch, a spokesperson for the Fairbanks North Star Borough school district.
State models, which briefly predicted a declining case count in the fall, now predict higher levels of infection than we have seen to date as the month progresses.
But there are other indicators that show Alaska compares favorably with many other places when it comes to how sick we are with this virus, perhaps because there are more young people here. So far, officials say, it’s people in their 20s and 30s who are increasing new case counts. In general, they tend to resist the virus with fewer complications than older people or people with underlying medical conditions.
And so far, Alaska’s death rate is still the lowest in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. The number of people sick enough with COVID-19 to need hospitalization hasn’t moved much in weeks and has actually dropped slightly over the past few days.
As of Monday, there were 37 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, 11 of them in intensive care beds in Anchorage, where the state’s sickest patients tend to end up, according to data from Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
In general, according to the association’s president and CEO Jared Kosin, hospitalization numbers for coronavirus patients have remained constant over the past 30-60 days.
Health administrators got worried this summer when similarly rising case counts led to fears of a crisis in state hospitals as COVID-19 patients crowded into the limited critical care space.
It never happened, Kosin said. But it can take a week or two before someone who contracts the virus needs hospital treatment, so it’s hard to say what the current spike in cases will bring.
“The spread of the community is always concerning,” he said. “We are holding on and we are whole and able to handle what is coming … but it is a lagging indicator and no one knows what tomorrow will bring.”
A Dunleavy spokesperson on Monday afternoon e-mailed a statement in response to questions from the Anchorage Daily News that the increase in the number of cases could result in changes to current mandates that include testing or quarantine for most travelers. and a mask requirement in state buildings but not statewide. The governor said he generally wants communities to dictate their own COVID-19 policies.
Now Dunleavy and state health authorities are “closely monitoring the number of cases and are in daily contact with hospital officials about the capacity of the Alaska hospital,” the statement read. “While the number of positive cases is on the rise, this has been anticipated by the Governor and Alaskan public health experts. It is also important to recognize that for every 100 hospital beds occupied, only 2 to 4 beds are used by a patient. with COVID-19 “.
The governor is monitoring the counts and evaluating existing protocols and, if justified, will make changes to the “state’s approach to handling COVID-19,” the statement said.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said last week he wanted to step up the enforcement of pandemic precautions and called on companies “to do the right thing” to avoid further restrictions. Berkowitz said he was “looking into options” for bringing cases down to allow school in person, but he wanted to make sure they were effective and had community acceptance.
“Put on that damn mask, if I may quote Chris Wallace,” Berkowitz said.
Municipal health officials also expressed concern last week that city hospitals could run out of ICU beds by the end of this month or early November if the ongoing increase in cases translates into people. more seriously ill.
Cases are increasing in Europe and other US states, particularly the Midwest, Zink said. The peaks in other places are followed by similar peaks in Alaska.
The other number that is increasing is the r0 or “r-zero” rate which indicates how contagious COVID-19 is right now, according to Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliated faculty member at the University of California. Alaska Anchorage. This raises concerns due to the increased risks of infection as Alaskans who have spent long summer days outside are forced in as the flu season puts more pressure on clinics and hospitals.
“While we were in some kind of stalemate for about two months, we have now moved on to higher risk transmission, both from the perspective of the increased number of active cases and the increased risk of transmission from those cases to other people.” , Hennessy said in an interview last week. “And this is a very disturbing environment, given everything else we just talked about: people moving around the house, cold and flu season, the potential amplification of that effect. It’s all very concerning and indicates a ‘ autumn epidemic that could be very dangerous for Alaska “.
Johnston said reducing the number of cases in Anchorage will continue to be made more difficult by the arrival of cooler weather and shorter days, which make it harder to socialize outdoors and require more creativity.
The best thing people can do is wear a mask and keep a distance of six feet whenever they’re around someone who isn’t in their immediate family, she said. “We’ve been busy for a while and we need to find ways to protect ourselves and protect our sanity.”
Journalists Morgan Krakow and Emily Goodykoontz contributed to this story.