Alaska sees sharp spike in coronavirus cases stemming from B.1.1.7 variant

A yellow circle bordered by green in a blue background.
A transmission electron micrograph of a particle of the B.1.1.7 strain of the coronavirus — a variant first identified in Britain. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Health officials said Thursday they’re seeing a sharp increase in the share of Alaska’s COVID-19 cases linked to a more contagious — and potentially more deadly — strain of the coronavirus, first found in Britain.

The B.1.1.7 strain of the virus is roughly 50% more contagious than original strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also says it could be more severe, based on hospitalization and death rates.

CDC officials predicted months ago B.1.1.7 would become the primary strain of the virus by March, and it’s now responsible for most of the country’s cases. Alaska’s first case of the variant was found in a person who tested positive in December, though it took months before cases began sharply increasing in frequency across Alaska, as they are now.

“We’re really seeing B.1.1.7 crowd out the lineages we have circulating here, much like the data that’s being displayed for the rest of the country,” Jayme Parker, a top state lab official, said at the news conference.

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State lab data showed B.1.1.7 was responsible for roughly one-third of the state’s COVID cases in early March, roughly double the rate of the prior two-week period.

Alaska testing data shows increasing prevalence of the B.1.1.7 strain of COVID-19 first found in Britain.

Officials say because B.1.1.7 is more contagious, it’s urgent the state vaccinate people as quickly as possible, since the shots appear to remain very effective against the strain.

At the same time, the state’s COVID-19 case rates have dropped from high to intermediate for the first time in seven month, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office announced Thursday.

Alaska’s two-week average case rate had been above 1 case per 10,000 — the threshold for high risk — since September, Dunleavy’s office said. It finally fell below that number Wednesday.

“Due to the efforts of Alaskans protecting our most vulnerable, the early and rapid vaccination of our high risk population and the widespread availability of vaccines and therapeutics Alaska has seen a significant decline in COVID cases,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “With low cases, low hospitalizations and more Alaskans vaccinated, we can feel safe and enjoy a busy summer season as we focus on economic recovery.”

Case counts have been dropping sharply across the state in recent weeks. But clusters and isolated outbreaks have also continued to pop up, including in some regions with relatively low COVID-19 vaccination rates.

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Nat Herz covers government, politics, environment and COVID-19 for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at nherz@alaskapublic.org.