Alaska reports 1 new COVID-19 death, JBER declares public health emergency

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 5:05 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2021 at 5:42 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska ended a week of record-breaking new COVID-19 infections with another large single-day report and one new COVID-related death, as hospitals continue to struggle under a severely stressed system. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson also declared a public health emergency Friday.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on Friday reported 893 new COVID-19 cases, 18 of which are among nonresidents. The state recorded one additional death of an Alaska resident related to the virus. The death was recent, the state health department reported, and was an Anchorage man in his 60s.

Since the pandemic began in Alaska, the state has recorded a total of 454 resident deaths related to COVID-19 and 15 deaths of nonresidents.

On Friday afternoon, JBER announced it has declared a public health emergency and is officially instituting heightened protective health measures. It calls the measures Health Protection Condition Bravo, the base said in a press release. All health directives from a policy memo that was issued back in July are still in effect, according to the release. Those require employees and visitors to wear masks while indoors regardless of vaccination status, and require close contacts to quarantine.

In addition to the policies from July, Friday’s press release said “all JBER personnel are urged to limit movement into areas not requiring masking, distancing and other COVID mitigations.”

“If the situation continues to worsen, additional measures to protect the force will be implemented, including restricting access to off-base establishments,” the release states.

“We’ve all seen COVID-19 cases continue to spread rapidly across our nation, the state of Alaska and in our local community,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Kirsten Aguilar, 673d Air Base Wing and JBER commander, in the press release. “After close consultation with JBER mission commanders, I have decided to declare a Public Health Emergency. This declaration reflects the continued reality that JBER is experiencing sustained community transmission of COVID-19.”

The public health emergency will last for 30, and according to the release will allow Aguilar to implement additional measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 on the base. The shift to the new mitigation measures also encourages personnel to wear masks when they are not on the base as well.

“While it is (Department of Defense) policy to synchronize public health responses at the local level, there are situations where we maintain greater restrictions than state and local governments to provide mission assurance, protect the force, and ensure mission readiness,” a memo to personnel reads.

The release from JBER cites high levels of community transmission of COVID-19 in Anchorage. The state has broken records for new cases over the last two weeks, and has also consistently reported high numbers of COVID-positive patients.

Nearly 20% of people currently in Alaska hospitals are COVID-19 patients, state data showed on Friday.

“To have 20% of your hospital filled of any one disease or ailment is a big deal,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Thursday in a virtual media availability with reporters. “We don’t get 20% of our hospitals full of heart attacks or even traumas. This is a lot to have of any one thing.”

The state’s hospital data dashboard showed that, as of Thursday, there were at least 204 people being hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide. It also showed that, as of Thursday, there were just three adult ICU beds left open in Anchorage, and 19 available statewide.

The stress on hospital staff and resources in Anchorage became so great that this week the state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, announced it had implemented crisis standards of care and would be prioritizing treatment and resources for patients who stood the best chances of benefiting from them.

Alaska Native Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital have not yet made the same call, but have both reported being under severe strain. In a statement, Alaska Native Medical Center said patients should not expect the usual standard of care when they go to the facility as it’s being impacted by longer wait times and rescheduling surgeries.

Doctors have pleaded publicly with residents to consider getting vaccinated and to practice mitigation measures like wearing masks and social distancing. This week, the head of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association said hospitals are anxiously awaiting out-of-state staff that’s been requested through a federal agency, and that they won’t be looking to local Alaska political leaders for help.

“We’ve made the ask, it’s not worth doing it again,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the association.

Alaska’s current COVID-19 surge is being largely driven by the highly-contagious delta variant. The most recent situation report from the Alaska Sequencing Consortium found that 98% of Alaska COVID-19 cases that were sequenced the week beginning Aug. 15 were the delta variant. The state has identified more than 1,600 cases of the variant in Alaska so far.

Once a leader in vaccination rates shortly after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, Alaska has fallen down the national rankings. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Alaska ranked 31st out of U.S. states when it comes to vaccination rates, as of Friday.

According to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard, 57% of eligible Alaskans age 12 and older are now fully vaccinated, and just over 62% have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The data show 46.5% of Alaska’s total population is fully vaccinated.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough remain the two least-vaccinated of Alaska’s major regions.

The state on Friday also reported its highest-ever rate of positivity for COVID-19 testing, with a seven-day average positivity rate of 9.58%. During the state’s last surge during the winter of 2020, the highest the positivity rate ever got was 9.31%.

Of the 893 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday, 875 of them were identified among Alaska residents of the following communities:

  • Anchorage: 290
  • Fairbanks: 111
  • Wasilla: 71
  • Bethel Census Area: 38
  • Homer: 31
  • Eagle River: 26
  • Juneau: 26
  • North Pole: 26
  • Palmer: 25
  • Kenai: 20
  • North Slope Borough: 19
  • Kodiak: 15
  • Soldotna: 15
  • Kusilvak Census Area: 13
  • Bethel: 12
  • Utqiagvik: 12
  • Chugiak: 11
  • Anchor Point: 9
  • Haines Borough: 7
  • Big Lake: 6
  • Delta Junction: 6
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough: 6
  • Valdez: 6
  • Kenai peninsula Borough North: 5
  • Kenai Peninsula Borough South: 5
  • Ketchikan: 5
  • Sitka: 5
  • Nikiski: 4
  • Nome Census Area: 4
  • Northwest Arctic Borough: 4
  • Tok: 4
  • Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area: 4
  • Copper River Census Area: 3
  • Matanuska-Susitna Borough: 3
  • Willow: 3
  • Craig: 2
  • Dillingham: 2
  • Dillingham Census Area: 2
  • Girdwood: 2
  • Salcha: 2
  • Seward: 2
  • Sutton-Alpine: 2
  • Unknown location: 2
  • Bristol Bay/Lake and Peninsula: 1
  • Hooper Bay: 1
  • Houston: 1
  • Metlakatla: 1
  • Prince Of Wales-Hyder Census Area: 1
  • Sterling: 1
  • Unalaska: 1
  • Wrangell: 1
  • Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon: 1

The state also reported 18 additional nonresident cases of COVID-19 across the state.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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