Vaccinating the villages

Pharmacist Brant Herman prepares materials for vaccinations to fly to Chalkyitsik on Tuesday morning, Feb. 16, 2021, at Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center. Alena Naiden/News-Miner

Alaska COVID-19 cases are starting to climb again while state vaccination rates are plateauing.

The state reported 231 cases on Wednesday, “one of the largest case counts we’ve seen in a while,” state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said during a Thursday news conference. Locally, Fairbanks saw 10 cases, North Pole saw five, Delta Junction saw four and the broader Southeast Fairbanks Census Area saw two.

The increase comes from several sources, including school testing, social events, sports tournaments, correctional settings and from travelers, said Loisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with Alaska’s Division of Public Health.

“We don’t have one single venue or one single event that’s driving all the numbers,” she said. “And I think that’s what could make people nervous because things can spiral out of control in many different venues, many different geographic locations at the same time.”

The recent uptick is not unique to Alaska; cases in the United States, Canada, as well as other regions of the world such as Europe and South America, also are on the rise, McLaughlin said.

The highest number of cases falls into the 20-39 age group, and that’s where vaccination rates are the lowest, state Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said. “Vaccines are our way to get out of this pandemic,” she added.

While officials are still analyzing how many vaccinated Alaskans get infected — a phenomena called vaccine breakthrough — they do say that none of those people get very sick.

“We haven’t seen severe illness in any of these people who have been classified as a vaccine breakthrough,” Castrodale said. “That’s really good news, but we’re hoping to provide more details in the next week or so.”

Vaccinations plateau

While more than 30% of all Alaskans and at least 71% of all seniors have received at least their first vaccine dose, officials are not seeing vaccinations move as quickly as before.

“We were in this rapid acceleration phase, where it’s a lot of people getting vaccinated, and we’ve been kind of plateauing recently,” McLaughlin said. "We want to go back into the acceleration phase where we see more and more people getting vaccinated every week.”

To transition from a state of health emergency, the state needs to have a lower average of new daily cases and a higher proportion of people fully vaccinated — around 70%-80%, he explained.

“When we do that, I think we will start really seeing us getting back to normal and leaving Covid in the past largely,” McLaughlin said.

Analyzing why Alaska vaccinations slowed down, DHSS Deputy Program Manager Kelsey Pistotnik said that they saturated the group of Alaskans who will go online and sign up for an appointment, but the demand is still there — health officials just need to make vaccines available in an easy way that makes sense to the rest of the population

“Is it drive-through clinics? Is it more walk-ins? Is it vaccinating in the airports? Taking the vaccines to companies and larger businesses?” she said. “It’s all of these different ways. It’s really just pivoting and rethinking the way that we are making vaccines available.”

Fairbanks has almost 4,000 vaccines available. To register online, go to covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322.

Great COVID response in 2020

Looking into the past year, Alaska ranked second of 50 states in response to the pandemic, according to the annual inclusiveness index released by the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley.

While Alaska was “in the middle of the pack” in terms of case numbers, the state had a higher number of tests per capita and much lower level of deaths compared to other states, the director of research at the institute, Stephen Menendian.

The state’s excellent public health response paired with the benefit of being more remote and isolated contributed to Alaska’s success, he added.

Meanwhile, the United States was among numerous countries that fared the worst and proved unable to control and suppress the virus during 2020, mainly due to a lack of earnest public health measures and strategies, according to the researchers.

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