Alaska COVID-19 case count hits new high, but hospitals aren’t sounding alarms

A scanning electron micrograph shows a cell (green) heavily infected with particles (yellow) of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Alaska set a record for new COVID-19 cases among residents Monday, but a top hospital industry official said that facilities aren’t seeing a spike in patients and that there’s no immediate cause for alarm about overwhelming hospitals.

The state announced 197 new cases of COVID-19, which is the number of positive tests that were reported to health officials yesterday. Three of those were in nonresidents.

Anchorage’s tally was 116, a single-day total for the city that’s only been exceeded once, in late July. The Fairbanks North Star Borough recorded 55 cases, which is its highest total since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

Alaska’s death rate over the course of the pandemic is still the lowest in the country.

Case counts in both Anchorage and Fairbanks have been steadily climbing in recent weeks, as has the rate of tests that are coming back positive.

In the past week, nearly 11% of tests in Fairbanks have been positive, while that number stands at 5% for Anchorage. Statewide, it’s at 4.19%, which is a new record. The World Health Organization says that areas should not loosen restrictions until rates stand below 5% over a two-week period.

Late Monday, state health officials issued a bulletin warning that COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise across Alaska.

“Alaska’s overall alert level continues to be high and is trending up,” the bulletin said. It urged Alaskans to be cautious and follow the “three w’s”: Wear a mask, watch your distance and wash your hands.

Meanwhile, the state’s hospitals are getting busier. But that’s not unusual heading into winter, and the number of COVID-19 patients doesn’t seem to be spiking, said Jared Kosin, chief executive of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, the state’s leading hospital trade group.

“If you were to ask, ‘How is the hospital world looking today?’ It’s looking consistent with what it’s looked like before,” Kosin said. “There’s no major alarm bells going off. Things are intact.”

Kosin also said hospitals aren’t seeing any unusual challenges when it comes to finding hospital staff to care for patients. But he also stressed that the situation at hospitals is what’s known as a lagging indicator — meaning that it takes time for people to get seriously ill or need hospitalization once they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.

After holding a news conference Friday where he declared that Anchorage was “teetering” on an edge, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz had no new actions or mandates to announce Monday, according to spokeswoman Carolyn Hall. The city’s case counts have nearly doubled in the past three days, rising to above 100 since the 64 that were announced the day of Berkowitz’s news conference.

“We’re obviously really concerned with the trending increase in case counts, and it’s something we’re keeping a close eye on. All options are on the table,” Hall said.

In Fairbanks, local leaders were scheduled to meet with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office and Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink on Monday to discuss strategies to boost testing and to get more people to wear masks, city Mayor Jim Matherly said in a phone interview.

While the CDC says that masks are a critical tool to fight the spread of COVID-19, neither the city nor the surrounding borough of Fairbanks requires them.

Matherly said there’s confusion about whether it’s borough Mayor Bryce Ward or Gov. Mike Dunleavy who has the authority to impose a mask mandate on areas of the borough that lie outside the city.

Matherly said he doesn’t want to impose a mask mandate solely on the city because it could push commerce, like restaurant customers, to businesses outside the city.

“I’ve taken the route of, ‘Please mask up.’ I put it out there constantly. I take around free masks to businesses,” Matherly said. But he’s resisted an order, he said, “because we’re a city within a borough. I can’t enforce the thing — it would be very tough to do. It would take the governor to do it for the whole borough.”

Neither Ward nor a spokesman for Dunleavy responded to requests for comment.

Matherly said Fairbanks has also experienced confusion and frustrating inconsistency with testing availability and turnaround times. He said he’s in negotiations with the state to open a drive-in testing site within the city, potentially using leftover aid money from the federal CARES Act.

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