Delta variant arrives in Y-K Delta with high percentage of breakthrough cases

Two people carry a large box into a walk-in freezer.
A shipment of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations lands in Bethel, Alaska and is transferred to a deep freezer at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation on December 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Health officials continue to sound the alarm about the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country and in Alaska.

“The original COVID could infect one person, can infect two to three people. This version of the virus can infect between five and eight individuals,” Dr. Elizabeth Bates said on “Talk of Alaska” on Tuesday. Bates is Director of Infection Control for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

“The other thing that we’re seeing with the delta variant is there’s more risk of severe disease, particularly unvaccinated individuals, so there’s more risk of hospitalization and death,” she said.

RELATED: Delta is surging. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.

Bates said 24% of COVID-19 cases in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have been breakthrough cases — people who test positive for the virus despite being fully vaccinated.

But she said breakthrough cases are less likely to experience serious symptoms, require hospitalization, or die from the COVID-19.

It’s also unclear how infectious breakthrough cases are. Right now, the risk posed by the unvaccinated population still poses a much higher level concern for public health experts.

Bates said YKHC recently saw its first COVID-19 death after four months, and is treating COVID-19 patients as young as 10 months and as old as 89.

She encouraged eligible people to get vaccinated as a way to help protect vulnerable populations and manage hospital capacity.

RELATEDCOVID-19 patients at Alaska’s hospitals are mostly younger, sicker and unvaccinated

Recent CDC data shows being fully vaccinated reduces a person’s risk of getting sick by eight times.

“So, it reduces your risk eightfold if you’re exposed. That’s not 100% so there is still some risk. And as I described, we do see breakthrough cases in our region. But as I said, it’s almost 100% effective at preventing severe illness and deaths,” Bates said.

A significant challenge to the vaccination effort is ongoing misinformation and mistrust of the medical community, Bates believes. She says the vaccine is safe.

“This is built on 25 years of data, and trials with other SARS viruses, and mRNA technology. So I don’t, wouldn’t consider it experimental at all. I would consider this sort of established science,” Bates said.

Bates said at this point, dying from COVID-19 is avoidable, thanks to the vaccine.

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