In the last week, the coronavirus’s omicron variant has pushed Alaska’s daily case counts higher than the fall delta variant surge and sidelined health care workers at an alarming rate.
The state surpassed 1,700 cases for the first time last Wednesday and hovered around 1,500 cases a day going into the weekend.
State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin talked to Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about what people should expect from this wave, and what to do if you test positive — or can’t get tested at all.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Joe McLaughlin: In Alaska, case counts more than doubled this past week compared to the previous week, and our hospitalizations are also now starting to increase somewhat. And nationally, cases have increased by about 70% this week compared to the previous week. So what we’re seeing here in Alaska is mirroring what’s happening nationally.
You know, the biggest concerns we have are: Number one, on the health care front, certainly our biggest concern throughout the pandemic has been overwhelming hospitals and our health care infrastructure in general. We’re seeing, as you mentioned, the highest case counts from day-to-day — that’s both nationally and here in Alaska — now than we have seen throughout the pandemic.
Fortunately, omicron is associated with lower hospitalization rates in general per case that’s counted. But, you know, we are still seeing hospitalizations and deaths. And so, as we’ve seen nationally, hospitalization rates are higher than they’ve been at other times in the pandemic. And we’re also starting to see staffing shortages across the country because many staff are getting sick. Unfortunately, this omicron variant is able to evade prior immunity — both from prior infection as well as from vaccination — better than any of the other variants that we’ve seen so far.
You know, anytime we see hospitalizations, we will also see deaths. The CDC reported out today that the death rate has increased by 34% this week, compared to the previous week. So we are starting to see deaths increase as well. We expect that the death rate is going to be — per case that is counted — much lower with omicron than it was with delta. But in terms of sheer numbers, because we’re seeing so many omicron cases, we expect that there will be quite a number of deaths that will also occur.
Casey Grove: Just to turn back to testing numbers, given that folks have to voluntarily report the results of at-home tests, and a lot of people are using those, does that take away from your ability to identify trends in case counts?
Joe McLaughlin: It does, yes. So the more people that get the over-the-counter tests and get a positive test result and don’t get, you know, either a confirmatory test through their health care provider or some other mechanism, we won’t see those test results. But that’s not particularly concerning, because we are still going to see a lot of test results from people who do choose to get either a laboratory-based test or a rapid test from their health care provider or from a pharmacy or some other testing facility. And we can use those those test results that come in and get reported to us really just to monitor the trends.
Casey Grove: We’ve seen some long lines at at the drive-thru testing sites, at least here in Anchorage, and I wanted to ask: Is the availability of testing, or the difficulty of getting tested, is that something that you’re concerned about as an epidemiologist?
Joe McLaughlin: Yes. We know testing lines are long in some communities. And at-home tests can be hard to find right now. But testing does remain a critical tool. The most important thing is to please be patient and use whatever form of testing is most convenient and accessible. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, and you don’t have access to testing, you should presume that you have COVID and go ahead and isolate for at least five days to keep from spreading the virus to others and ideally wear a mask for another five days after you come out of isolation. Also, anybody who tests positive — not only should they go into isolation themselves, but please, we really want folks to notify their close contacts, because the quicker you notify your close contacts, the more rapidly they can get into quarantine if they have not been vaccinated, or if they have been vaccinated they can appropriately mask. And the recommendation is to mask for 10 days when around other people.
Casey Grove: Yeah, I guess the important thing there is if you have a test or not, if you have symptoms, there are some pretty smart things that you can do.
Joe McLaughlin: That’s correct.
Casey Grove: You had mentioned earlier, the health care workers and concern about folks getting sick and not being able to actually be there at work. Can you tell me more about that? Is that still one of the biggest problems that we’re seeing with omicron, right now? And is the state doing anything to help that situation?
Joe McLaughlin: Yeah, so we are seeing, not only here in Alaska, but nationally, shortages of staffing in health care facilities. First of all, I just want to say thank you to our hospitals and to other health care teams for making sure that staff are up to date on their vaccination status. We know that that is our best tool in our toolbox for combating and helping to decrease transmission of COVID-19, as well as decreasing the risk for severe illness. Also, masking. Appropriate masking is another important preventive tool, especially in health care facilities, using those most protective masks, which we actually call respirators, like the N95 and KN95 respirators can really make a big difference in decreasing transmission rates.
Also, we’ve heard that some employers are offering child care support for staff, and that’s really appreciated. Now, when it comes to what’s happening in Alaska with respect to staffing shortages and work that we’re doing, there is a contract with the state of Alaska that provided temporary health care workers for Alaska facilities. And that expired on Dec. 20, 2021 but provided three allowable extensions, and the Department of Health and Social Services is executing all three of those allowable extensions. And that will take us through little past mid-March with those three extensions.