Kenai Peninsula health officials talk COVID, vaccine guidance

a COVID vaccine worker
A healthcare provider prepares to give a COVID-19 booster shot in Unalaska. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

COVID-19 rates are down in Alaska, but the virus is still with us. Public health officials are urging people to be up-to-date on their vaccines, especially for the elderly and medically vulnerable.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its COVID-19 vaccine guidance Tuesday, to simplify the vaccination schedule for most people.

The agency now recommends the bivalent vaccine to be used for all doses for ages 6 months and older, including boosters. That version is a vaccine against two strains of the virus, rather than the monovalent version, which is just against one strain. Global health experts say vaccines help prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19, which are severe illness, hospitalization and death.

KBBI’s Hope McKenney spoke with two Homer healthcare professionals — public health nurse Lorne Carroll and South Peninsula Hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro — for the latest on COVID on the Kenai Peninsula, and public health guidance.


HOPE MCKENNEY: So where are we at now with COVID? And where do we go from here?

LORNE CARROLL: The short of it is the pandemic for COVID-19 continues. So what’s going on here in Alaska, overall, Alaska incidents, or that’s another way of saying the new cases, is thought to be down probably around 15%, as compared to a couple of weeks ago. And the hospitals are down about 45% as compared to a couple of weeks ago. One thing that’s changed is Alaska hospital capacity looks a little bit different than the trends that Derotha and I were talking about months ago. But regional adult ICU is open. And so there’s still a couple ICUs in the Anchorage bowl that are closed. And then there’s also a couple of psych services that are closed, that’s ANMC and Alaska Regional, but all of the emergency departments are open. So that’s good news. I haven’t seen that a long time.

And all of those services for pediatric clients are open in the Anchorage bowl. So this brings me back to some high points, I would say number one, is that we’re still in this Omicron phase of the pandemic. It means that it passes around really quickly, some folks are experiencing their third or fourth time of having COVID-19 infection. And also the damage that it does is relatively small as compared to Delta. But it does the most harmful damage amongst those people that are vulnerable for poor outcomes. I think the upshot here is that there’s vaccines available. So it’s a good time to look at your shot record to see if you’re due for a bivalent booster. But also, the number of the incidents of deaths lately in Alaska is less than the United States overall. So that’s a good thing.

And then, I guess I would say to lastly is that it’s a really good time to know exactly what you should do if you gets sick. So if he gets sick, you’re having signs and symptoms that are like COVID-19, step one would be to isolate. Step two would be to get a test. If that test pops up positive, isolate yourself from others for a total of five days. So that’s five days from the first day that you started to have signs and symptoms, or the first day that you had a positive test.

MCKENNEY: Okay, so Derotha, from the hospital perspective, it sounds like there are beds open, we actually have capacity in terms of beds around the state at this point. What is the local situation here at South Peninsula Hospital in terms of COVID?

DEROTHA FERRARO: Well it’s been at least a month, over a month, since we have had an individual hospitalized, related to COVID-19. And as far as what we see in the clinics, we still see ups and downs of individuals having COVID-like symptoms and coming in to be treated or evaluated for that. And, if appropriate, prescribe the paxlovid. That is still the preferred treatment, if a person is within the window of prescribing that, and if the person is, you know, in a high risk group for complications or extended illness from COVID-19.

As far as staffing goes, we see ups and downs for staffing being out with COVID, or COVID-like symptoms. So we’ll go weeks with nobody being out, and then we’ll have one or two and then back down and then three or four. So we still are seeing staffing impacts as a result of it, but not nearly the way that we were during the peak of the pandemic. And the time off that you’re required to take now isn’t quite as long as before so that they can get back to work a little faster. So COVID-19 is still here, as are many other communicable diseases circulating throughout the community, and the state and the nation. I wanted to follow up on your conversation with Lorne about boosters. The public does not have to memorize all of that information. If you just Google “COVID-19 booster,” the page that pops up is the CDC page and they have this little button — it’s just this great little “find out when to get a booster” and then you just click it and it just asks you, “Did you do this? Then do this and then do this.” So it’s all spelled out for you. That way you don’t have to stay up-to-date with the news as far as what’s next.

MCKENNEY: And so I mean, we’re supposedly coming out of the cold season right now, but how do we distinguish between all of these different things going around: cold, flu, COVID, RSV. How do we distinguish between those and what should people do if they have symptoms?

CARROLL: That’s a great question. You know, a lot of these things like you’re highlighting, or I think that you’re alluding to, in part, is that they had the same signs and symptoms. And in many cases or contexts, it’s not possible to differentiate one from the other, unless you get a test. And also the tests aren’t perfect, and you could have more than one virus and/or bacteria at the same time. But here’s the upshot, is that many of the mitigation tools that we all have and we all use, are available to us. And they work against all of these viruses. So what I’m talking about is respiratory infections that are passed from one person to the next, mostly from coughing or breathing or singing, and those fly into the air and they enter the respiratory tract of others. So that’s the effector, or the mechanism of passing the virus, for the most part, from one human to the next.

So, in this pandemic, when a lot of things have changed, one thing remains the same: Good hand washing and excellent respiratory hygiene remain these really viable and inexpensive tools that we can continue to use to keep ourselves safe, but also those that are around us that are particularly high risk, or if they get infectious disease or another one, it’s going to have poor outcomes. So good hand washing, note if you’re sick, stay home, give yourself a break, and don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call your doctor, your medical home, or you can call us at the Public Health Center anytime. Happy to talk through things with you. We’re at (907) 235-8857.

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