Alaska has reached yet another inflection point in the coronavirus pandemic. But it looks different this time: Health officials say cases and hospitalizations are rising because of the extremely contagious delta variant. And Alaskans hospitalized with the virus are mostly younger and sicker. Plus, nearly all of them are unvaccinated.
Alaska Public Media reporter Tegan Hanlon spoke with Alaska News Nightly host Casey Grove on Monday about the state of the pandemic in Alaska.
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(The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity, with additional information added about recent state health department reports.)
Casey Grove: Let’s start out with the delta variant — what sounds like the real beast behind this latest wave of infections. How contagious is it?
Tegan Hanlon: It’s really contagious. And that is the problem. Late last week, there were a bunch of national news stories about this internal report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that laid out a grim analysis of the delta variant saying it’s as contagious as chickenpox. And it’s more contagious than the viruses that cause Ebola, SARS, MERS, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox.
CG: What has that meant for Alaska and the case load here?
TH: It’s meant more COVID infections and more COVID hospitalizations — particularly over the past month, as delta became the dominant variant and took off like crazy, largely infecting people who are unvaccinated.
In fact, a report from the state health department last Wednesday said 94% of COVID cases so far have been in people who were not fully vaccinated. Also, 94% of COVID hospitalizations and 97% of COVID deaths have been in people not fully vaccinated.
The steep rise in cases in unvaccinated people is happening across the country, and the globe, too.
In Alaska, the increase in infections followed a relatively quiet June, with low case counts and hospitalizations, as the state reopened and tourists returned.
Now, according to the state health department’s Monday update, every region of Alaska is in a “high alert” level with widespread community transmission of COVID-19. Alaska recorded 751 new COVID cases over the past three days. And there were 99 COVID patients in Alaska hospitals — similar to what we saw over the winter. A top health official in Bethel recently said he felt like he was having déjà vu.
CG: You reported last week, right, that Alaskans hospitalized with the coronavirus are mostly unvaccinated and younger — can you talk more about that?
TH: Yes. So the state health department says the average age of those being hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alaska right now is 56. Back in November of 2020, the average age was older: 63. The department also said that this July, 25% of Alaska’s COVID hospitalizations were patients under 40, compared to just 14% last November.
As for why they’re sicker? The CDC has found the delta variant may be more likely to lead to severe illness.
CG: What has the response from health care leaders been to this latest wave?
TH: We’ve recently had leaders of Alaska’s biggest hospitals really sound the alarm about rising COVID hospitalizations.
We’re also seeing renewed calls for masking up. At the federal level, the CDC is now recommending everyone in COVID hotspots wear a face mask in indoor public spaces — vaccinated or not. And, by the agency’s definition, that applies to nearly all of Alaska, including major population centers Anchorage, Mat-Su, Juneau, the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks.
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, has echoed that recommendation, too, saying everyone in communities with widespread infection should consider masking up again indoors. She said she’s doing that, and so is her family.
Dr. Anne Zink: In watching the delta and watching vaccine breakthrough cases, we have made a decision to only eat outside, and not eat inside restaurants, because of the risk of kind of transmitting in that space. And to mask when we’re in indoor spaces where we don’t know other people’s COVID status — so that may be the grocery store, that may be the hairdresser.
TH: Zink has also repeatedly called on people to get vaccinated. She said it’s the best defense against the coronavirus. Because, while we know there are breakthrough cases — those vaccinated people who become infected — it’s a very small number compared to how many unvaccinated people are getting infected. Also, Zink said, the vaccine is really effective at preventing the worst outcomes from the coronavirus, like serious illness, hospitalization and death.
CG: So we’ve been through this before: Periods of high alert-levels of cases, and health mandates in response. How are Alaska’s political leaders responding to this latest increase?
TH: The responses are varied. Alaska’s governor and Anchorage’s mayor — both Republican — have said there’s no way they’re bringing back mask mandates.
Others, though, are pivoting back to face masks. Sitka just enacted its first mask mandate. Juneau is requiring face masks again in many public settings. The University of Alaska is requiring masks indoors at all of its locations this fall. And the Anchorage School District superintendent is recommending ASD also require masks inside.
It’s all really controversial. The coronavirus pandemic, as you know, has become incredibly political.