COVID cases have been rising steadily in Alaska, but is it a surge?

A woman in a yellow shirt and mask hands two boxes to someone under a glass plexiglass sheet
Free rapid antigen at-home COVID-19 tests were being distributed at Anchorage’s Spenard Rec Center on Dec. 30, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

COVID cases have ticked up steadily over the last few weeks in Alaska. But this swell in numbers is not like other COVID surges, which have looked much bigger.

Over the last week, numbers appear to have dropped slightly. There were 2,248 cases reported statewide on Wednesday, and that doesn’t include any positive results from at-home tests.

State epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale said it’s clear there’s a lot of COVID activity in the state, but compared to last year, the state isn’t capturing as many cases in its data.

“We know there’s a lot more over-the-counter testing that people are doing to make decisions, personal health decisions about whether they are gathering with people or traveling or what have you,” she said. “And those are numbers that are not reflected in the overall case counts.”

Castrodale says that taking a look at weekly case counts and trends over time is still useful. For example, Juneau’s test positivity rate spiked to nearly 40% for a couple weeks in May. That means that of all the test results that were reported to the state, close to half of them were positive. That’s usually an indication that not enough testing is happening to capture a true picture of how much of the virus is in the community.

While that percentage may not be the most useful metric for understanding how much COVID is in the community, Castrodale said the rapid increase is certainly an indicator that the virus is circulating.

“We’re kind of evolving in this data presentation of thinking about broader strokes and more global regional trends, and how to look at those numbers and make sense of them,” she said.

That “broad stokes” perspective has been the case for a while, and it’s because the COVID virus and our defenses against it have changed. So while it’s tempting to compare numbers now to numbers from 2020 or 2021, Castrodale said that’s ignoring context.

“We have vaccination in different age groups, we have a different variant that’s spreading, we have different levels of hospitalization relative to what we saw for cases,” she said.

If that all sounds kind of confusing, you’re in good company. Castrodale says even epidemiologists are struggling to find the best way to present COVID data over time.

She said the bottom line is that if case counts or hospitalizations make a big jump — even if it seems small compared to the pre-vaccine and pre-home test days — it’s an indicator that there’s more virus around, and you may want to consider taking precautions.

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