Vaccination clinic

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. 

While Alaska’s COVID-19 case numbers keep trending down and vaccinations are going up, state health officials announced seven new COVID-19 deaths in the past week, bringing the total number of deaths to 286.

The Anchorage area reported five of the new deaths, while Utqiagvik and Bethel reported one each, according to reports from the Department of Health and Social Services. Five of the deceased were in their 80s and two in their 60s.

In terms of virus transmission, the department announced Thursday that 213 new Alaskans were identified with the virus, 16 of them in Fairbanks, six in North Pole and two in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Wasilla, Anchorage and Palmer reported the highest number of cases yesterday — 57, 47 and 20, respectively.

Cases trending down

While daily counts are informative, weekly trends reflect the situation in the state better, Dr Anne Zink, the chief medical officer for the state, said during a Thursday briefing.

Last week Alaska reported 1,121 new cases — an 11% increase from the week before, which reflects high transmission throughout the state, according to the department. However, after Alaska saw its peak in cases in December, and case numbers are continuing to trend down. If the pattern continues, the new cases are expected to halve every 47 days. The state’s hospital capacity is also in good condition, with more than six weeks until reaching capacity.

“This is very reassuring,” state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said during the briefing. “We are all very happy to see this decrease in cases not only in Alaska but nationally as well.”

Alaskans following safety protocols help the positive trend, McLaughlin said. Besides, a large proportion of the population has either been exposed COVID-19 or has been vaccinated, and as a result, a lot of people have an antibody response to the virus, he added.

Zink said after a year of the pandemic, Alaskans learned more about the nature of the virus and available tools to fight it, switching from defense to the offense.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” she said. “And we have many reasons to be cautious and many reasons to be optimistic.”

Variants threaten herd immunity

One of the main concerns the officials have is the spread of the new, more transmissible variants of the virus such as the B.1.1.7 variant.

So far, only one case of the B.1.1.7 variant has been found in Alaska. However, only a small portion of positive Alaska cases has been compared against the new variants, so the actual spread might be higher.

McLaughlin said that because this variant is 40-50% more transmissible, we might need a higher percentage of people vaccinated or surviving the virus for achieving herd immunity — 70-80% instead of 65%.

Vaccinations are opening 

Alaska remains the most vaccinated state per capita with almost 134,000 people receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, but it is still only about 18% of the population, according to the department’s Vaccine Monitoring Dashboard.

Fairbanks has 1,078 open appointments for vaccination events on Mar. 4 and Mar. 9. To register online, people 50 years and older, various essential workers, teachers and daycare employees can go to covidvax.alaska.gov or myhealth.alaska.gov. They can also call 907-646-3322.

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