Signs on Saturday, March 28, 2020, at the main entrance to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska, warn visitors not to enter until they have been met by hospital staff. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Signs on Saturday, March 28, 2020, at the main entrance to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska, warn visitors not to enter until they have been met by hospital staff. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Three more southern peninsula residents die of COVID-19

The latest reported deaths came in a large batch of 44 deaths reported on Sept. 24 and a group of 22 on Sept. 27.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported three more southern Kenai Peninsula COVID-19 deaths since Sept. 22: a Homer woman in her 70s, an Anchor Point woman 80 or older and a Homer man in his 50s. All were reported as recent deaths.

That brings the death total for the southern peninsula to 12, seven in Homer and five in Anchor Point. The latest reported deaths came in a large batch of 44 deaths reported on Sept. 24 and another large group of 22 on Sept. 27. Reporting of those deaths was delayed due to a cyberattack on DHSS computers earlier this year. Some deaths were for the spring, but most were from August and during a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalization and deaths caused by the delta variant.

Alaska also had a record number of cases reported daily, with 1,735 reported on Sept. 24. The state also had the most per-capita COVID-19 cases in the country again Monday, as DHSS reported an additional 4,025 new cases over the weekend.

According to the state’s dashboard, the seven-day rolling COVID case average has far exceeded last winter’s peak — which hit 704.7 cases in a single day on Dec. 12 — soaring to 1,273.6 on Sunday. Most areas of Alaska are in a high alert level, defined as more than 100 cases per 100,000 people. The statewide alert level on Tuesday dropped slightly to 1,201.1 positive cases per 100,000 people for the past seven days. That’s about one in 100 Alaskans who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Although some of the excess cases are likely due to data backlog, officials said during a press briefing last Thursday, there is still a lot of COVID currently present in Alaska.

Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said in the Thursday press conference that while the state’s health care system isn’t necessarily on the brink of complete collapse, many hospitals are near, at or over capacity.

“It’s not like suddenly the whole system collapses,” Zink said. “It’s a series of small decisions that can impact an individual’s health that collectively become greater over time.”

Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna has 49 regularly licensed beds, and in the last few weeks as both COVID and non-COVID patients have flooded the hospital, the staff has had to open up overflow space to accommodate the influx.

Of the 23 COVID patients at the Soldotna hospital Monday morning — 20 of them unvaccinated — six were in the intensive care unit and five were on ventilators.

According to the New York Times COVID database, the average caseload is up 62% in Alaska over the past 14 days.

Zink said health care professionals across Alaska are being forced to make adjustments as COVID continues to move rapidly through the state.

“Currently we’re seeing, across the state … changes to the care that is normally provided,” she said. “So that may be having less nurses to care for your patients, that may be delayed in-transfers, that may be not having the exact machine that you would typically use in that situation.”

She said the strain is hard on everyone involved.

“That kind of feels like a collapse,” Zink said. “But I think what will happen is if we continue to see cases go up, we will continue to see people be hospitalized, we will continue to see more strain on the system, we will see more cost to the system, we will see more Alaskans die.”

Zink said the inundation of the hospitals will likely make it harder to rebound even after COVID cases start dropping off again.

“I do anticipate that we will see hospital capacity strain for months as a result of the current service that we’re seeing,” she said. “And so I think we as Alaskans need to be prepared for really limited health care capacity for months.”

Zink said more people choosing to vaccinate will prevent more illness and deaths.

“Really our health care systems and the people are under siege from this virus right now,” Zink said. “But we have amazing tools to slow it down and to really help prevent severe illness and death.”

She said choosing to get fully vaccinated against COVID is the best decision Alaskans can make to help get the virus under control.

As of Tuesday, 59.1% of Alaska residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated. The Kenai Peninsula Borough falls below that average, reporting that almost half of its eligible residents — 49.1% — had received their full dose series. In the Homer area, 63.1% are fully vaccinated. In Anchor Point, 42% are fully vaccinated and in the other Kenai Peninsula South area only 20.4% are vaccinated.

“Burnout is oftentimes a system failure, not a person failure,” Zink said Thursday. “And we need to find ways to help minimize the burnout, which means we need to stop having so many cases and so many people going to the hospital. So I think the best thing we can do to help our health care workers is … to get vaccinated, to wear a mask in indoor spaces, (and) to get tested.”

Statewide, as of Sept. 28 for the Sept. 27 period, 107,640 Alaskans have tested positive for COVID-19 — about 15% of all Alaskans. As of Tuesday, the percentage rate of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is 18.8%. The testing rate is 9.12%.

South Peninsula Hospital has done 768 COVID-19 tests with 51 positive for the week of Sept. 22-29, hospital Public Information Officer and Director of Marketing Derotha Ferraro wrote in an email on Wednesday. That’s a 7% positivity rate. In the same time period there were seven COVID-19 related visits to the emergency department. The hospital did 19 outpatient monoclonal antibody infusions and administered 169 new vaccinations including 95 boosters. In the same time period, one new COVID-19 patient was admitted. As of Wednesday morning, five COVID-19 patients were hospitalized out of 12 total. The hospital has 51 monoclonal antibody infusions available, with supplies replenished weekly.

At South Peninsula Hospital, because of the level of community spread of COVID-19, visitors are not allowed except for those with appointments. Long Term Care is open to approved visitors by appointment. One designated visitor per patient per stay is permitted for pediatric patients, obstetric patients, surgery patients and end of life care.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster has now been authorized. People should talk to their healthcare provider about if a booster shot is appropriate for them. Boosters are available for anyone who is at least six months after their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine series, and falls into one of these categories: people 65 years and older; residents aged 18 years and older in long-term care settings; people aged 50 to 64 with certain underlying medical conditions; people 18 to 49 who are at high risk for severe COVID-19 due to certain underlying medical conditions may receive it based on their individual benefits and risks; and people aged 18-64 years who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting may receive it, based on their individual benefits and risks. This includes first responders (healthcare workers, firefighters, police, congregate care staff); education staff (teachers, support staff, daycare workers); workers in food and agriculture, manufacturing, corrections, U.S. Postal Service, public transit and grocery store workers.

Testing locations

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.

SVT Health & Wellness offers testing to anyone at its 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).

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, Pfizer and Janssen vaccines are offered.

People who are immunocompromised can now get a third dose by either a provider’s referral or by submitting an attestation form.

People qualify for the third dose if they are receiving active cancer treatment, if they received an organ transplant and take medicine to suppress the immune system, if they have received a stem cell transplant within the last two years and take medicine to suppress the immune system, if they have a moderate or severe primary immunodeficiency, if they have an advanced or untreated HIV condition, or if they take high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that suppress the immune response.

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 Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com. Peninsula Clarion reporter Camille Botello contributed to this story. Reach her at cbotello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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