With the transmission of the COVID-19 virus slowly receding in the state, Alaska is receiving about 100,000 additional vaccine doses and has expanded the number of Alaskans who are eligible to receive them. A new contagious variant has made it to the state, but the officials stay optimistic about vaccines working against it.

Brazilian variant detected

At least one Alaskan was infected by the Brazilian (P.1) variant of the COVID-19 virus, which is known to be more contagious and less susceptible to vaccinations.

An Anchorage resident tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb. 8, and after analyzing the case, health officials learned Tuesday that the patient contracted the new strain, state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said.

The Anchorage resident has no recent history of travel, and officials are still investigating potential sources of exposure, one of which is a dinner at a restaurant the patient had before developing symptoms, McLaughlin said.

The patient has at least three close contacts, one of whom also tested positive for the virus. It is unknown yet whether this close contact contracted the Brazilian variant.

To identify which strain of coronavirus a positive case belongs to, health officials are conducting sequencing — the process of comparing the COVID-19 viral genome to positive cases around the state.

“We are currently sequencing more than 20% of positive tests,” McLaughlin said. “So the likelihood of undetected widespread circulation of these variants of concern is very low at this point.”

On the national level, five cases of the Brazilian variant have been detected so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While some research suggests that the new strain is more transmissible and less susceptible to antibodies produced by vaccines or previous exposure to the virus, scientists are still investigating the extent of these factors and what they mean to the population.

“Our best guess at this point is that these vaccines, even with these variants, likely will still make a big difference at not having you as sick,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink explained during a Wednesday briefing. "The exact numbers and effectiveness and how it all works we need to figure out, but I just want to make sure we are painting that broad picture of what we think right now about the vaccine as well as the variants.”

Governor tests positive for COVID-19.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Wednesday announcement from the governor's office. Dunleavy is experiencing mild symptoms and is staying at home.

“He will continue to fulfill his duties by teleworking from home and receive additional tests until it is certain he is free of the virus,” read a prepared statement from the governor’s office.

The governor was exposed Saturday to an individual who later tested positive for the virus. He was feeling well and tested negative for COVID-19 on Sunday morning but quarantined during his infectious period, the governor's office stated. He had been feeling well until Tuesday night, and this morning he tested again, testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 infection.

“The incubation period for this virus is two to 14 days, so if someone gets tested right after the exposure, like the day after the exposure, it’s very unlikely that that’s gonna test positive,”  Zink explained during the Wednesday briefing. “So that's why we ask people considering getting tested in the middle of that incubation period.”

On Tuesday, Turner did not answer a question as to whether Dunleavy was exposed at the Alaska Outdoor Council’s annual banquet and fundraiser in Palmer. The $75-a-plate dinner was held Saturday, and according to the council’s website, was sold out. Turner referred questions about Dunleavy’s plans for future COVID-19 testing to his scheduler.

House Speaker Louise Stutes wished Dunleavy a speedy recovery in an email on Wednesday.

“I encourage Alaskans to join me in praying for Governor Mike Dunleavy to experience a quick and full recovery from COVID-19,” the email stated. “We are nearing a new chapter where vaccines will allow us to get back to normal, but this diagnosis is a tragic reminder that the pandemic is not yet over.”

The state of vaccinations

Alaska is receiving more than 103,000 additional vaccine doses for March and February and is expanding the definition of people eligible for vaccinations.

“Alaskans have been doing great work at getting shots into arms, fast and fair, and we’re excited this month to ramp up those efforts even more to protect Alaskans as quickly as possible with these safe and highly effective vaccines,” Zink said. “The days are getting longer, the sun is getting brighter, and the vaccines are coming to the state. It’s a super exciting place to be.”

For March, the state will receive about 93,500 of first doses, both through the state allocation and Indian Health Service. In addition, the state will receive a supplemental allocation of 9,640 vaccine doses for February. An equal amount of second doses will be shipped to Alaska later in the month, according to the Wednesday announcement from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

“This is a significant increase over last month’s total allocation of 59,600 first doses,” Zink said.

The allocation includes Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines but does not include projected numbers for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as soon as Friday. If authorized, Alaska could also receive an allocation of Johnson & Johnson vaccine in March.

Alaska is currently vaccinating people over 65, people over 50 with high-risk medical conditions, essential workers over 50 working close to others, all educators and staff associated with them, health care workers and people working at congregate settings, as well as long-term care residents and staff.

Starting Wednesday, people assisting seniors to get a vaccine are also eligible for vaccinations.

“If you are taking someone 65 and older to get vaccinated, you are now eligible to get vaccinated,” Zink said, explaining that many seniors may not speak English or are unable to drive, and the state wants to make sure they get vaccinated.

In addition, any workers in congregate settings and any health care workers supporting medically fragile people can also get their shots,

“We added some clarification language as we receive additional vaccines, and we are hoping to move to the next tier soon.”

Officials are monitoring how quickly appointments are filling up and looking at opening new tiers in the upcoming weeks, the lead for the Alaska COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force, Tessa Walker Linderman, said during the Wednesday briefing.

So far, Alaska vaccinated more than 20% of its population with at least one vaccine dose At least 61% of those over age 65 had received a shot.

Fairbanks currently has 700 open appointments for vaccinations. To register, eligible people can go to covidvax.alaska.gov or myhealth.alaska.gov to register for a vaccination. They can also call 907-646-3322.

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