Alaska sees a record high number of new COVID-19 cases for one day, but health officials say that’s not the whole story

A health care worker with purple gloves handling a COVID-19 test swab
SEARHC personnel test a colleague for COVID-19 at the employee screening tent behind the hospital in Sitka in April 2020. (Photo by Berett Wilber / KCAW)

State health officials reported a record 1,091 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and while that’s the most cases they’ve ever reported in a single day, that figure doesn’t necessarily represent how many people tested positive on a single day.

High case counts are leading to backlogs in testing and contact tracing, but they’re also leading to backlogs in state reporting.

In Juneau, local emergency planning officials say case counts from the state have been lagging for weeks.

“They’re backed up, they’re playing catch up,” said Emergency Operations Planning Chief Robert Barr when the city had its highest number of cases for one day at the end of August.

A state health department spokesperson hasn’t yet responded to questions about how far the state is lagging behind in reporting new cases.

But in a data summary email, the state acknowledged that when it gets a high number of reports, that may cause delays in getting them entered into the state’s system and counted.

“Personnel continue to focus on the effort to process and count reports and minimize the delay from receipt to posting on the hub,” according to the email.

Juneau’s Emergency Manager Mila Cosgrove said she’s hearing of occasional case lags in state reporting of sometimes a week to ten days from the date the COVID-19 test was taken.

She said it’s a good idea to look at the seven-day average test positivity rate because it helps to flatten peaks and valleys in the number of positive tests that are reported each day. Right now, Alaska’s seven-day average test positivity rate is at a record high 9.6%. Health officials say that anything above 5% indicates that more testing needs to be done.

In Juneau, state health officials flagged 61 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. That includes 58 residents and three visitors to the community.

The Juneau school district reports 10 new people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and were infectious while in school, that includes:

  • One each at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kale and two at Thunder Mountain High School, where all classes are operating on regular schedules.
  • One at Auke Bay Elementary School, where part of one class is quarantined.
  • One each at Floyd Dryden and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle schools, where all classes are operating on regular schedules.
  • And three new cases at Sítʼ Eetí Shaanáx̱ – Glacier Valley. Those cases are still being investigated.

Right now the city is relying on the state to report new cases, but emergency managers are also keeping an eye on the positive tests that are coming through Bartlett Regional Hospital’s lab.

Cosgrove says there have been lower cases counts coming through Bartlett, though that lab is only part of the overall picture of Juneau’s positive cases.

Six people with the virus are currently being treated at the hospital, and just 11 of the hospital’s 57 total beds are currently available according to Juneau’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The hospital is having trouble medevacing patients out because hospitals throughout the Pacific Northwest are strained. 

Bartlett Chief Nursing Officer Kim McDowell said that while the hospital hasn’t seen the surges that have been experienced by hospitals in Anchorage and Seattle, there are more and more patients who need care for COVID-19 and its after-effects — things like heart and lung issues. Those patients aren’t counted in the hospital’s daily tally of COVID-19 patients because they aren’t infectious anymore. 

It hasn’t gotten to the point where hospital staff are having difficulty keeping up with the number of patients who show up for treatment, but “It would not take much to get to that point,” McDowell said.

She said the majority of the patients who are having to be seen for long term impacts from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“I’m going to sound like a broken record,” McDowell said. “We know vaccines work. We see that firsthand when we’re comparing people that have been vaccinated who contract COVID: The compare-and-contrast when you see people who are unvaccinated is amazing.”

This story has been updated with additional information from Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Rashah McChesney

Daily News Editor, KTOO

I help the newsroom establish daily news priorities and do hands-on editing to ensure a steady stream of breaking and enterprise news for a local and regional audience.

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