Novel coronavirus

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.

Credit: NIAID-RML

While state officials are opening up more appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations and preparing to receive more vaccine doses in February, at least one Alaskan was infected by the new United Kingdom variant known for its faster and easier transmission.

An Anchorage resident contracted the U.K.'s new coronavirus variant in mid-December, according to a Tuesday news release from the Department of Health and Social Services. This is the first time Alaska has seen a case of the new strain that was originally detected in September in the U.K. It is known to spread more easily and quickly than other strains of the virus.

Specifically, the variant, known as B.1.1.7 might be 50% more transmissible than the regular COVID-19 virus, and while the safety measures against getting infected by the virus stay the same, “people need to double down on their efforts to mitigate transmission,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said during a Tuesday news conference.

“Any breach in protocol means a high likelihood of transmission,” he said. “So the more times you go around without a mask and interface with other people or don’t watch that six-foot distance and don’t wash your hands, that means that’s just a higher likelihood the virus is going to make its way into your system.”

The Anchorage resident who tested positive for the new strain of the virus had recently traveled to a state where the variant has already been detected. A couple of days after the resident returned to Alaska, the patient started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on Dec. 17, received positive test results on Dec. 22 and isolated after that.

Another person living with the individual also tested positive for COVID-19, and while it is likely the two contracted the same strain since they live in one household, health officials are still assessing the second test, hoping to get it done within next week. Both individuals have recovered by now.

“We are hopeful that the transmission stops with these two individuals but we can’t say that for sure,” McLaughlin said. “Because this variant is spreading quickly, in Great Britain, globally and the U.S. as well, it is highly likely we will see this new variant in Alaska in the near future.”

Nationally, 24 states registered 293 cases of the U.K. variant, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited in the news release. The CDC has warned that this variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by late spring and has the potential to drive further increases in infections in coming months.

The reason why health officials learned just now about the new variant making it to Alaska last month is the laborious and time-consuming nature of sequencing: the process of comparing the COVID-19 viral genome to positive cases around the state. Since December, they are able to conduct that process faster, and they might find more examples of the new variant that made it to the state in the recent past.

The state of the virus: One death but less new cases

Meanwhile, the virus also brought one state death to a man in hist 60s in the Northwest Arctic Borough, bringing the total number of deaths to 258.

In terms of transmission, 89 new people were identified with COVID-19 in Alaska, a relatively low number compared to the three-digit counts the state has been receiving.

Of those new cases, Fairbanks saw seven and North pole saw one. Across the state locations with a higher number of cases, 20 people tested positive in Anchorage, 12 in Wasilla, and 11 in the Bethel Census Area.

While most Alaska regions stay in the high risk zone of high transmission, the northern Southeast Region is in an intermediate zone, and the southern Southeast Region just moved to the low risk zone.

The state of vaccinations: More vaccines, more appointments 

A total of 101,585 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered in Alaska as of Tuesday.

Almost 82,500 people received only their first dose and more than 19,117 people completed their vaccination series of two doses.

More vaccination appointments are expected to open across the state Thursday at noon, Tessa Walker Linderman, the lead for the Alaska COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force, said during the conference. This won’t include every provider in every city and town, but the officials are hoping to set up a more regular system for scheduling vaccinations moving forward.

“We really would love to get to a rhythm where people just know that they should check for new appointments on Thursdays so they don't have to refresh the website all the time,” Linderman said.

Starting Tuesday, people who need help scheduling their appointments or have questions about the vaccine can call the state help line and actually get a response live. Previously callers needed to leave a voicemail and wait for a call back.

“Now when you call 646-3322, you might be on hold for a little bit, but there will be somebody to answer your call,” Linderman said, explaining that they expanded their response crew. “We are especially happy to have that available for seniors on Thursday when the appointments are opening up.”

In other good news, in February, the state will receive a new vaccine allocation — a total of 59,600 doses — 41,100 of them through the state and 18,500 through the tribal allocation, Linderman said.

The state will receive the shipments for the initial doses, spread out across the first week of February, and it will be followed by the shipments for the second doses, she added.

February will also be a month when boroughs and census areas will receive more autonomy in allocating vaccines, Linderman said.

“Up to this point it’s really been state-led in terms of allocating the vaccine and where it’s going,” she said. “This is our first month that really having the communities take the lead on where the vaccine is going in their communities.”

The seniors are the main population health officials want to provide vaccines to in February, since the group constitutes 70% of all state deaths and 50% of hospitalizations. However, the officials are trying to move through their queue as fast as they can and hope for additional vaccine allocations to speed up mass vaccinations for the general population.

“We want to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said during a news conference. “We are really fortunate with where we are in the state overall, but things can change quickly. A big ask to Alaskans to continue the hard work that they are doing for mitigation. We continue to see people get sick from this virus, we continue to see its spread, and we continue to need your help."

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.