With Alaska’s coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations still elevated statewide, some Anchorage hospitals this week announced additional restrictions on visitors.
On Thursday, Alaska reported 382 new COVID-19 cases and five virus-related deaths that officials say all occurred in May, and were identified through a standard review of death certificates.
A spokeswoman with Alaska Regional Hospital said Thursday that the facility in Anchorage is still running very full.
“A week ago today, we had 30 COVID-19 patients, which is the highest number we’ve seen. Today, we are caring for 25 COVID-19 positive patients,” Kjerstin Lastufka, hospital spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday.
As an added protective measure at Alaska Regional, most patients are now limited to one visitor per day, per patient, while Emergency Department patients are not allowed any visitors, Lastufka said.
High transmission of COVID-19 in the community also has prompted the Alaska Native Medical Center to restrict the number of visitors allowed at its facility. Beginning early this week, a policy allowing visitors only in some situations — like end-of-life, labor and delivery, and pediatric care — went into effect.
By Thursday, 97 people were hospitalized with the virus in Alaska, including 17 who were on ventilators.
Hospitalization numbers have remained relatively steady over the last week, but are considered high for a state with a limited health care infrastructure and hospitals that are already close to capacity during the summer.
Last winter, the number of virus-related hospitalizations peaked at around 150. As recently as early July, hospitalizations were less than a quarter of what they are now.
Additionally, visitation is being restricted for at least two weeks at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home, a state-run assisted living facility that is currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.
By Thursday, 10 residents and two staff at the home had tested positive, said Clinton Bennett, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson, in an email.
One resident was hospitalized overnight, but returned home the next day and is in stable condition, he said. The home’s vaccination rate among staff and residents is over 90%, which means some cases were likely “vaccine breakthrough” cases, Bennett said. Vaccination is not required for Pioneer Home staff, Bennett said.
Officials also said Thursday that Alaska’s vaccination rates are slowly starting to rise as more Alaskans opt to protect themselves.
When comparing the weeks beginning July 18 and July 25, Alaska experienced a 9% increase in the rate of vaccines administered statewide over a single week, said Matt Bobo, a manager with Alaska’s immunization program, during a call with reporters.
Higher vaccination rates are Alaska’s best chance at bringing back down case counts, hospitalizations and deaths, officials — including Gov. Mike Dunleavy — have said. Between January and the end of July, 94% of the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and 97% of deaths have been among Alaskans who are unvaccinated.
By Thursday, 48% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 44% of the entire population was considered fully vaccinated. Among only eligible Alaskans 12 and older, those percentages were higher: 58.1% had received one dose, and 52.6% had completed their vaccination series.
The deaths reported Thursday involved a woman from Fairbanks who was in her 80s or older, a man from Anchorage who was in his 80s or older, a woman from Anchorage in her 70s, a woman from a smaller community in the Mat-Su Borough who was in her 70s, and a man from Palmer in his 70s.
In total, 390 Alaskans and eight nonresidents have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state last spring.
The state health department said last week that even fully vaccinated Alaskans in communities with high COVID-19 transmission should consider masking up again in public, indoor spaces. That recommendation was in line with recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state’s test positivity rate increased slightly on Thursday. Of all the tests conducted over the past week, 6.35% were positive. Epidemiologists have said a positivity rate over 5% is a cause for concern, because it points to higher transmission and not enough virus detection.
Of the 351 cases reported in Alaska residents on Thursday, there were 82 in Homer, 69 in Anchorage, 20 in Wasilla, 18 in Kodiak, 16 in Kenai, 15 in Fairbanks, 14 in Anchor Point, 12 in North Pole, 11 in Palmer, 10 in Soldotna, nine in Eagle River, seven in Valdez, six in Juneau, five in Cordova, three in Seward, three in Sitka, two in Chugiak, two in Ketchikan, two in Sterling, two in Utqiagvik, and one each in Bethel, Big Lake, Douglas, Fritz Creek, and Girdwood.
The state health department said in an email that the higher number of cases in Homer is the reflection of a test result processing delay that was recently identified and resolved. There was “no delay in communicating the test results to the individuals who tested positive,” the state said.
Among smaller communities, there were 18 in the Nome Census Area, four in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough, three in the Copper River Census Area, three in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, two in the Aleutians East Borough, two in the Denali Borough, two in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough, and one each in the Bethel Census Area, the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area.
There were also 31 new nonresident cases identified: eight in Homer, four in Fairbanks, three in Anchorage, two in Ketchikan, one in Delta Junction, one in Juneau, one in Kenai, one in a small community in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, one in Skagway, one in Soldotna, one in Valdez, and seven in unidentified regions of the state.