Update, Aug. 5: This story has been edited to include new information released Thursday of 100 more positive resident cases on the Southern Kenai Peninsula.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced two new resident COVID-19 deaths Tuesday.
The residents who died were both in Anchorage — a female in her 70s and a male in his 60s.
In Thursday’s report for Aug. 4, DHSS reported 382 new positive COVID-19 cases, including 82 cases in Homer, 14 in Anchor Point and four in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South. It also reported four nonresident cases tested in Homer. This is the largest single-day report of positive cases in Homer since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
DHSS also reported five new deaths of people who died in May: a Fairbanks woman in her 80s, an Anchorage man in his 80s, an Anchorage woman in her 70s, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough woman in her 70s and a Palmer man in his 70s. That brings the total to 390 Alaskans who have died
In Tuesday’s report, there also were another 307 COVID cases reported, which included 46 on the Kenai Peninsula and 29 on the southern peninsula, including four nonresident Homer cases. The DHSS weekly report on Wednesday said there has been an 18% increase in cases this week compared to last week.
As of Tuesday, every census region in the state was categorized as high alert status. According to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s COVID-19 dashboard, all three areas of the peninsula were in high alert status, with 276 cases for the central peninsula over the last 14 days, 61 cases for the southern peninsula over the last 14 days and 61 cases for the eastern peninsula over the last 14 days.
According to the DHSS weekly report, 94% of all cases, 94% of all hospitalizations and 97% of deaths among Alaska residents from Jan. 1 through July 31 were in people who were not fully vaccinated.
There were three deaths, 40 hospitalizations and 1,678 cases of people with vaccine breakthrough infections of COVID-19, defined as positive COVID-19 detected in a person who is at least two weeks beyond their second dose of a 2-dose series or the only dose of a 1-dose series.
The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all people — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks in public areas where seven-day case averages supercede 50 per 100,000. In accordance to this guidance, people on the Kenai Peninsula are now advised to wear facial coverings in public.
The state’s vaccination rate hasn’t budged much in the recent weeks amid the new wave of COVID cases. As of Tuesday, the state reported 52.5% of Alaska residents 12 years and older were fully vaccinated against the virus. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 44.6% were fully vaccinated.
On the southern peninsula, the Homer area — including the city of Homer, Diamond Ridge and Fritz Creek — had a fully vaccinated rate of 58.6% and a one-dose rate of 62.7%. Anchor Point had a fully vaccinated rate of 38.4% and a one-dose rate of 40.70%, while the other peninsula south had a fully vaccinated rate of 20.3% and a one-dose rate of 21.50%.
As of Tuesday, there were 100 COVID hospitalizations statewide, with 19 patients on ventilators.
According to Bruce Richards, the Central Peninsula Hospital’s external affairs director, there were a total of 10 COVID hospitalizations at CPH on Tuesday.
Medical personnel at CPH have been treating nearly as many COVID patients as they were at the worst of the pandemic last November.
He said in an email there were as many COVID patients — 16 — on July 29 as there were for their record-setting day in November for the most COVID hospitalizations in a single day.
Richards also confirmed via email that three COVID patients at CPH were on ventilators as of Tuesday.
Ventilators, otherwise known as life support, are oxygen-pumping machines connected to a patient through a tube placed down the windpipe.
Richards said it’s important to note that these machines don’t automatically help patients recover from the virus.
“They aren’t a magical cure,” he said. “This is the final option that we have as healthcare providers, and the survival rates in the setting of COVID-19 are very low when it reaches this point.”
Richards also said the COVID patients at CPH seem to have more severe illness now than they did earlier in the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 patients we have cared for in our Intensive Care Unit over the last several weeks are easily the sickest, highest acuity patients that we have ever cared for at our facility,” he said by email.
At South Peninsula Hospital, for the month of June, four people were hospitalized with COVID-19, with one of those transferred to another facility, according to an email from SPH spokesperson Derotha Ferraro. In July, that number increased, with nine people hospitalized with COVID-19 and two transferred to another facility.
Ferraro noted there has been a discrepancy between what the hospital reports in positive tests and what shows up on the state COVID-19 dashboard.
“I’m getting calls from the community saying, ‘Boy, the state dashboard does not align with what I’m reporting out,’” Ferraro said in an interview on Monday. “The state has acknowledged there is a misfire in reporting and they are working to correct it.”
In an email on Tuesday, DHSS spokesperson Clinton Bennett confirmed that Homer cases had been undercounted. Patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 were contacted without delay, he said. Tuesday’s update showed more southern peninsula cases, with 14 in Homer, nine in Anchor Point, one each in Fritz Creek and Kenai Peninsula Borough-South, and four nonresident cases in Homer.
According to the South Peninsula Hospital’s website, from July 20 to Aug. 2, the hospital tested 1,645 swabs, of which 163 or about 10% were positive. On some days as many as 174 tests were done. In the most recent report for Aug. 2, 150 tests were done and 18 tested positive — numbers that haven’t yet appeared on the state dashboard.
Ferraro noted that the SPH testing site information shows tests done there, and that these can include people who are not residents of Homer or other southern peninsula communities, including other Alaskans and visitors from the Lower 48 or even internationally.
“We test everybody here,” she said. “Our positivity rate and our test results are strictly based on where the person tested, which is our test site.”
Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.
Testing is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily at the SPH COVID-19 clinic on Bartlett Street for people with symptoms, traveling, for pre-procedure screening and for exposure six days after exposure of after being at social gatherings.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Homer News editor and reporter Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.