High positive test numbers and village outbreaks signal COVID spread in Interior Alaska

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (Wikimedia Commons)

The positivity rate for COVID-19 isn’t something that is usually reported in COVID-19 updates. But Fairbanks’ high rate recently caught the attention of Alaska’s top medical officials.

“Fairbanks is the one community that has stood out recently with the high positivity rate,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer at a news conference on July 16.

In the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the case positivity rate — the number of cases divided by the number of tests — has reached over 15% in some three-day periods according to state figures. While it has improved in recent days, it is still above state averages.

That can be an indication that there could be many more cases than those that are being detected. As a whole, Alaska’s positivity rate has hovered between about 2% and 3% in recent weeks. 

RELATED: Despite months of aggressive measures, Fort Yukon reports 21 cases of COVID-19

The World Health Organization says that positivity rates should be below 5%. If they are higher, that could show that not enough testing is being done, since only the sickest patients are being tested. 

Clint Brooks, the incident commander for the Interior Area Unified Command in the borough, said that he hasn’t seen any indications that testing is insufficient in Fairbanks. 

“Anybody that needs a test can get a test. We’re not just testing the severely sick,” he said. 

What is concerning, he said, is the steep rise in cases statewide. He’s concerned that that will lead to a rise in hospitalizations.  

“What we’re watching closely is the amount of people that require hospitalization. And so that a key indicator of you know, being able to handle that capacity,” he said. 

So far, that number has remained under control. Eight people are listed as being hospitalized with or suspected of having COVID-19 as of Monday morning. 

Joan Sonnenburg, operations director for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, said that the hospital is doing all the tests it is asked to but has still run into delays with rapid testing, which can provide results within a matter of minutes. 

“So we have a machine but we cannot get the reagent for that,” she said. Instead, they’re relying on the state’s testing laboratories, which have been backlogged in recent weeks with delays of up to 10 days. 

Sonnenburg said that is due to the way the state allocates the reagent, providing it first to federal and tribal entities. 

Several Interior small communities also have recently reported outbreaks putting most of Interior Alaska under the state’s highest alert level based on case rates by population. The Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area’s average case rate per 100,000 people over the last week was over 23, compared to Anchorage’s of about 20. 

Fort Yukon, which is off the road system on the Yukon River, reported 21 cases with four people seriously ill. But people who had been in contact all tested negative, according to a tribal official there. Still, a fatality reported in Fairbanks on Sunday was a Fort Yukon resident, according to a tribal official there. 

RELATED: Two Alaskans die of COVID-19 as case count climbs

Circle, with a population about 100, reported seven cases, and the Copper River area reported 27 cases of COVID-19 since July 13. 

The Yukon River community of Galena also reported a positive case, though it was among a pilot contracted by the Alaska Fire Service. BLM spokesperson Beth Ipsen said that the person hadn’t interacted with the community and that the rest of the crew at the fire station there was under lockdown. 

Those communities have had relatively quick access to testing, thanks in part to rapid testing machines provided by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in April. Jessica Fields, the tribal administrator of Circle, said that all community members had gone through three rounds of testing. 

RELATED: Alaska had just emerged from recession when the pandemic hit. When will the state’s economy be back to pre-COVID levels?

Fort Yukon also was able to borrow a rapid testing machine from the neighboring village of Venetie, which allowed it to do quick testing, according to Dacho Alexander, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee tribal council there. For the more accurate PCR tests conducted by the state, however, it had to wait about two weeks to get results back, though according to Alexander, those all came back negative late last week.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.