As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced new guidelines easing restrictions for face mask wearing among fully vaccinated people, reports on Monday and Tuesday of 15 deaths of Alaskans from COVID-19 show that the pandemic remains deadly.
Last week, state health officials say new federal guidance on face covering is a positive sign, but that Alaska is not yet out of the woods.
“I feel like this new guidance is encouraging,” State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said in a press briefing with the Department of Health and Social Services last Thursday.
He said the mRNA vaccines are proving to be efficacious in real-world application, but Alaska is still a high-risk state.
“Although the case counts are decreasing in Alaska, we’re still in the red,” McLaughlin said.
Alaska State Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said last Thursday that the majority of new positive COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people.
She encourages everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its face covering guidance on May 13. The center now says people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may safely resume their normal pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask.
This even includes fully vaccinated people attending more crowded indoor events, like eating at a restaurant or bar and participating in a group exercise class.
The new CDC guidance still does recommend that people follow federal, state, local and tribal regulations for facial coverings. Fully inoculated people should still wear masks on public transportation and if traveling to an area with a low vaccination rate and a high case count.
The new CDC guidance came one day after it approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for emergency use in anyone over the age of 12.
Clinical Pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins and Director of Public Health Heidi Hedburg said during last Thursday’s press briefing that their kids already have appointments to get the Pfizer shot before the weekend.
In an attempt to increase the vaccination rate by 25% in each census area before June 1, DHSS has been planning some pop-up clinics to reach the newly eligible 12- to 15-year-old demographic as part of the “Sleeves Up For Summer” campaign.
Additionally, free vaccines will be offered at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau for residents and Alaska workers potentially as of May 15. Beginning on June 1, anyone traveling through the airports will have the opportunity to get a free COVID-19 vaccine.
“We really respect people’s decision to get vaccinated,” Zink said on Thursday. “In general I think it’s going well — it just takes a lot of time.”
On Monday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported one recent death of a Fairbanks man in his 70s and 10 deaths reported over the past several months through death certificate reviews. Those deaths were of a Fairbanks man in his 50s, a Bethel Census Area woman in her 60s, a Palmer woman in her 70s, a Wasilla woman age 80 or older, a Wasilla man age 80 or older, a Wasilla man in his 50s, a Wasilla woman in her 30s, an Anchorage man in his 60s, an Anchorage woman in her 50s and Kodiak man in his 70s.
On Tuesday, DHSS reported four recent deaths: a Wasilla man in his 60s, a Wasilla woman in her 60s, a Southeast Fairbanks Census Area woman in her 50s and an Anchorage man in his 70s. That brings the death toll of Alaskans to 362.
DHSS also announced on Tuesday three new new hospitalizations, bringing the total to 1,545 since the pandemic began. As of Tuesday, there were 25 total COVID-related hospitalizations in Alaska, with three of the patients on ventilators.
The DHSS reported 56 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with four nonresidents, for a total of 66,867 resident cases and 2,790 nonresident cases. Alaska remains at a high-alert level with 10.6 positive cases per 100,000 people. The new case count includes four on the Kenai Peninsula, with one each in Homer, Kenai, Seward and Soldotna. There were 18 news cases in Anchorage, six in Ketchikan, four in Wasilla, three in Big Lake, three in Fairbanks, three in Juneau, three in Palmer, two in Eagle River, and one each in Bethel, the Bethel Census Area, Nome, North Pole, Yakutat and Hoonah-Angoon.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough remains among five census areas in the intermediate risk division, which is categorized by having between 4.8 and 10 positive COVID cases per 100,000 people. The borough reported 7.6 cases per 100,000. The Southwest region is the lowest risk of all 11 census regions, with only 2.67 cases per 100,000 people.
The southern peninsula remains in the medium alert level, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District dashboard. There have been 18 reported resident positive cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, with nine in Anchor Point, eight in Homer and one in the other Kenai Peninsula Borough south location.
The central peninsula also remains in the medium alert level, with 32 cases per 100,000, while the eastern peninsula jumped into the high alert level, with 9 cases per 100,000.
Of tests done at South Peninsula Hospital between May 1 andMay 10, there were 751 tests, of which 656 were negative, 19 were positive and 76 are pending.
Free COVID-19 tests are offered 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week at the lower level of the South Peninsula Hospital Specialty Clinic, at 4201 Bartlett Street, Homer. Please use the Danview Avenue access. Please call and pre-register before coming if and when possible.
Testing is also available through the SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at 907-226-2228.
In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The testing is only for those traveling, symptomatic, needing testing for medical procedures, or with a known exposure after seven days. Only 20 tests will be offered per day. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.
On the central peninsula, testing is available at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice. Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.
In Seward, testing is available at Providence Seward, Seward Community Health Center, Glacier Family Medicine and North Star Health Clinic.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org. Peninsula Clarion reporter Camille Botello contributed to this story. Reach her at email@example.com.