Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News
People wait in cars to get COVID-19 testing or vaccinations on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at the South Peninsula Hospital COVID-19 site on Bartlett Street in Homer, Alaska. On Tuesday morning about 10 people waited to be helped, part of a recent uptick in testing and vaccination on the Southern Kenai Peninsula.

Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News People wait in cars to get COVID-19 testing or vaccinations on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at the South Peninsula Hospital COVID-19 site on Bartlett Street in Homer, Alaska. On Tuesday morning about 10 people waited to be helped, part of a recent uptick in testing and vaccination on the Southern Kenai Peninsula.

COVID-19 surge continues

‘They’re getting sicker this time around’

Monday afternoon, Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna was treating 10 patients for COVID-19 after a patient, a man in his 70s who had been on a ventilator for several days, died midmorning.

The patient was one of three who were on ventilators last Friday — another was medevacked to Seattle for a “higher level of care” and the other was still intubated at CPH on Monday.

South Peninsula Hospital in Homer also has seen more admissions for patients with COVID-19, including five hospitalized in one day in July, according to an email update on Wedneday from hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro.

“(The emergency department) is seeing many more COVID-positive patients than a month ago,” CPH External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said Monday.

Richards said two COVID-19 patients were discharged Monday, but those two were immediately replaced by two that were admitted to keep the number at 10. That’s in addition to people who come into CPH’s emergency department, are treated for COVID-19 and then discharged.

Richards said last week that the number of people CPH is treating for COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks, which reflects spiking COVID-19 case numbers in Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Double-digit case increases were reported on the central peninsula six out of the last seven days, with 155 cases reported in the last two weeks. In Seward, where the significantly more contagious delta variant has been confirmed, 51 cases were reported over the last two weeks.

On the southern peninsula, over the past seven days, South Peninsula Hospital did 807 tests, with 73 positive, a 9% posititivity rate, according to Wednesday’s upate from Ferraro. In July, the hospital has done 1,904 tess, with 189 positive. Just on Tuesday, the testing clinic did 130 tests, with 11 positive. To date, there have been 8,086 vaccine doses given this year through southern peninsula clinics.

The southern peninsula has been seeing an uptick in clinic calls, visits and telehealth calls for COVID-19 symptoms, Ferraro wrote in her email. The hospital emergency department has been averaging one or two visits a day for COVID-19 symptoms. The hospital offers Regen-COV monoclonal antibody infusions in the emergency department or in home health visits. It also offers Remdesivir anti-viral medicine for inpatient treatment.

People ages 20 to 29 are leading the infection rate, Public Health nurse Lorne Carroll told the Homer City Council in a report on Monday. Some of the southern peninsula positive cases were of SPH employees, with about 12 off work because of positive tests or quarantining because of exposure.

The positive cases did not come at the hospital, but from the community, Ferraro said in an interview on Monday morning. SPH does not require staff to be vaccinated, and about 60% of all staff are fully vaccinated and 64% have received one dose.

One bright note in testing for the southern peninsula is that SPH now uses the Cepheid test. The hospital can run tests within a day at an accuracy rate similar to tests done at state labs. Positive tests are still sent to the state for verification, Ferraro said. The hospital recently got a large shipment of the Cepheid tests.

“The timing right when we’re having the surge is a huge blessing,” she said.

All of that is in addition to a spike in the remote community of Seldovia, across Kachemak Bay, where 13 COVID-19 cases were reported during the week of July 19 out of Seldovia Village Tribe Health & Wellness. Closures of the Seldovia Ferry Terminal and the city’s Senior Meals Program were announced later that week “out of an abundance of precaution due to active COVID-19 cases in the community.” Seldovia Village Tribe Marketing & Public Relations Director Laurel Hilts said Monday that no additional cases were reported over the weekend.

Because it is a Census Designated Place of less than 1,000 people, Seldovia cases will appear in the “other peninsula south” category in state reports.

The B.1.672.2, or delta, COVID-19 variant, has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Variants of concern are those for which there is evidence of, among other things, an increase in transmissibility and more severe disease. The delta variant specifically has been associated with increased transmissibility.

The surge in cases mirrors statewide COVID-19 trends and comes amid stagnating COVID-19 vaccination rates on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced 562 new cases in Alaska from July 23 to July 25, including 124 new cases from Sunday. Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink has called the surge a “fourth wave.”

Included in the weekend total are 78 cases from the Kenai Peninsula among residents and nonresidents: 25 in Seward, 20 in Soldotna, 18 in Kenai, eight in Kenai Peninsula Borough South, five in Kenai Peninsula Borough North, one in Anchor Point and one in Sterling.

According to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s COVID-19 dashboard, the central, southern and eastern peninsula regions all are in the red zone or high alert level.

Testing has increased dramatically at South Peninsula Hospital’s testing and vaccination site on Bartlett Street. The drive-up clinic might have seen 30-40 tests a day in June, but tests are now numbering 100-130 a day for July, Ferraro said.

Statewide, 57.2% of Alaskans 12 and older had received at least one dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. Fifty-two percent were fully vaccinated. That is compared to the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where 47.1% of residents 12 and older have received at least one dose and 44.2% were fully vaccinated. That is according to DHSS data updated Monday.

According to the DHSS regional vaccination rates, the Homer area has the highest rate for the peninsula, with 58.1% fully vaccinated. The Sterling area has the lowest rate at 17.9% fully vaccinated, followed by the “other south” region of 20.2%.

Kenai Public Health Nurse Tami Marsters said Monday that public health’s recommendations are more of the same: stay home if you’re sick, quarantine or isolate if you end up positive, wear a mask if you’re around a lot of people, get vaccinated.

“Nothing has changed at all, even though nobody’s wearing a mask or being careful anymore,” Marsters said. “We have an awful lot of circulating virus.”

For people visiting the Kenai Peninsula from other parts of the state or from the Lower 48, Marsters said it is important that if they test positive, they do not travel. That may include isolating in their hotel or other lodging accommodations, as there is currently no specific place where travelers who contract COVID-19 can go to quarantine.

“I think we need to just keep talking about it because there’s a lot of people getting sick, and they’re getting sicker this time around,” Marsters said.

She added that there are numerous places on the Kenai Peninsula to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Get vaccinated, get vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Marsters said.

DHSS health officials have consistently lauded the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines currently available in Alaska. The Pfizer & BioNTech vaccine, which is available to people 12 and older, requires two doses administered three weeks apart and is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection. The Moderna vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older, requires two doses administered one month apart and is also more than 90% effective. Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older and requires only one dose, is about 66.3% effective.

As state health officials have said, however, no vaccine is 100% effective. Between Feb. 1 and June 30, 2021, 656 “vaccine breakthrough cases” were reported in Alaska, representing about 0.2% of all fully vaccinated people in Alaska. Vaccine breakthrough cases refer to cases where someone was vaccinated and still contracted COVID-19.

A State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin from July 15 reported that, of those 656 cases, 17 people were hospitalized due to their COVID illness and two people died. The two individuals who died both had “substantial comorbidities.” In contrast, among people who were not fully vaccinated, there were 14,906 cases, 391 people hospitalized and 58 people dying during the same time frame.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance specific to whether or not someone is vaccinated. Someone is considered to be fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.

On Tuesday, the CDC updated its guidelines for fully vaccinated people. To maximize protection from the delta variants, people who are fully vaccinated, the CDC says, should now wear face masks indoors if they live in an area of substantial or high transmission. Everyone has to wear a mask when on planes, buses, trains or other public transportation, including indoors on ferries. In other situations, people can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing, except where required by certain laws or regulations. Fully vaccinated individuals also do not need to quarantine or get tested after being around someone who has COVID-19 unless the fully vaccinated person develops COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, should get tested and quarantine.

People who are not fully vaccinated should continue to follow COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including wearing a mask in indoor public places, social distancing from people outside of their household, getting vaccinated, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing their hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning high touch surfaces daily and monitoring their health daily.

Testing

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.

Where to get vaccinated

South Peninsula Hospital continues to offer walk-in vaccines daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 4201 Bartlett Street, and by appointment at www.sphosp.org. Vaccines also are offered by appointment at Homer Medical Clinic and the SPH Family Care Clinic. For more information at the Bartlett Street clinic, talk to your doctor or call 235-0235 for additional information. To make appointments at Homer Medical Center, call 235-8586. To make appointments at the South Peninsula Family Care Clinic, call 235-0900. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are offered, with Moderna only on Fridays at the Bartlett Street clinic. The clinic currently is out of the ohnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines.

Safeway – Homer, 90 Sterling Highway, offers clinics 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday by appointment or walk-ins. Call 226-1060 for appointments. The Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are offered.

Kachemak Medical Group, 4129 Bartlett Street, offers vaccines by appointment. Call 235-7000.

Ulmer’s Pharmacy, 3858 Lake Street, offers Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines by appointment of walk-ins. Call 235-7760.

Ninilchik Clinic, 15765 Kingsley Road, Ninilchik offers Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines by appointment and Pfizer on demand. Call 907-567-3970.

SVT Health & Wellness offers Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen and Moderna vaccines for established medical patients of the three SVT Health & Wellness locations: 880 East End Road, Homer (226-2228); 72351 Milo Fritz Ave., Anchor Point (226-2238), and 206 Main Street, Seldovia (907-435-3262).

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach Homer News editor and reporter Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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