State’s top epidemiologist has tips for Alaskans heading into the holidays as omicron surge looms

cars lined up and a sign that reads "COVID-19 TESTING SITE"
Vehicles line-up on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, afternoon at the Loussac Library, one of Anchorage’s free COVID-19 testing sites. The Municipality has seen a significant increase in the amount of individuals getting tested. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s vulnerability to a surge of omicron cases is about average compared with other states, according to Alaska’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Joe McLaughlin. 

While Alaska’s overall COVID vaccination rate is lower than other states, it does have higher than average rates of of booster doses administered and the percentage of people that have some immunity from a previous infection. Still, McLaughlin said the low vaccination rate is Alaska’s biggest risk factor for a surge of the highly contagious omicron variant. 

“The first thing we need to improve on is increasing the proportion of our population that has had their primary vaccine series, and this is how we can cut hospitalization and death rates most dramatically,” he said, “And then secondly, we need to get people boosted.”

Alaska has detected only one case of the omicron variant so far, and case rates haven’t shown signs of another surge. But it takes up to two weeks to do the sequencing for the variants. So, health officials say it’s likely that there are many more omicron cases spreading in the state. 

McLaughlin said that, overall, Alaska’s in a better place this year than the same time last year thanks to vaccines and low daily case rates. 

He said he’ll be hosting a holiday gathering this year, but it will be smaller than usual. And he’ll have a testing requirement for guests, something he recommends for others. 

“These over the counter tests are great,” he said. “You can get them in some stores here in Alaska and if you test everybody immediately before the gathering, that is going to be a really good way to mitigate or decrease the risk of transmission at a holiday gathering.”

He said the health department is working to distribute rapid take home tests to local health departments around the state. The process has been slowed by shortage of test kits, but McLaughlin said most community health centers in Alaska are distributing them.

Lex Treinen

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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