Alaska health officials detail spike in COVID-19 cases, deaths due in part to backlog

State also reports record high of 217 COVID-19 hospitalizations
Published: Sep. 24, 2021 at 1:06 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 24, 2021 at 4:23 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The state of Alaska reported its highest ever number of new COVID-19 infections on Friday, but top health officials explained the spike was partially due to a lag in data.

On Friday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 1,793 new COVID-19 cases and 44 new deaths — 41 among Alaska residents and three among nonresidents. However, health officials from the department said during a Friday afternoon press release that these large increases in data are partly due to a data backlog the state has been experiencing and working through.

Commissioner Adam Crum said that daily reporting numbers are a mix of current and older cases. He and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the department has made technical changes to how data is input to its public online dashboards.

“But that does not diminish the fact that community spread of COVID-19 is very high,” he said. “Cases in Alaska continue to climb.”

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink shared data showing that Alaska’s cases are currently nine times higher than the national high alert level threshold.

“Alaska’s current COVID incidence rate is right now, the highest in the nation,” Zink said. “And we continue to see cases across the state.”

Zink emphasized that single-day COVID-19 number reports are not the best indicator of virus trends, because data lags make day-to-day comparisons difficult. She said it’s best to look at weekly case trends and the onset date for cases for a true picture of what’s happening.

“However, cases from September continue to convey that this is the highest incidence (of) cases we’re ever experienced,” Zink said. “Straining our public health infrastructure, our hospitals, our businesses and our economy.”

The state also reported a new record high of 217 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Friday that are not due to a backlog, indicating that virus spread is picking up in Alaska. The state’s hospital data dashboard showed that as of Thursday, there were 41 people sick enough that they are on ventilators. It also showed eight adult ICU beds left open in Anchorage and 20 available statewide.

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Clint Farr, operations manager for the Alaska Division of Public Health, explained how COVID-19 deaths are reported and processed, and how that contributes to delays and sometimes to large jumps in the number of deaths reported out to the public. Health officials shared a graph during Friday’s press conference that showed the breakdown of the 44 Alaska resident and nonresident deaths reported that day — one death occurred in April, six in May, one in June, four in July, 31 in August and 1 in September.

Farr said deaths are reported to the state in two primary ways: either directly to the epidemiological surveillance program, or through the death record process.

“It’s no different from COVID than any other death, and the process has been around for a very long time,” Farr said. “When a death occurs, a physician, a doctor fills out the death record and the physicians make the call for the cause of death. Not the state — the physicians do that. Cause of death must be, has to be, a medical opinion.”

Farr said the death record is then sent to and registered by Alaska’s vital records staff, who then send it to the National Center of Health Statistics. The center codes the cause of death into a number, Farr said, that allow health officials to compare deaths across states and years.

“And then eventually we get those coded causes of death back, we’ll reconcile with the Section of Epidemiology, to see if there were any deaths that had been missed, and that’s why every few weeks or so you might see a bump in the number of deaths that occur from COVID,” Farr said. “Because we’ve done a reconciliation with the death certificates.”

The state health department released a more detailed list of the recently-reported deaths on Friday afternoon. The three nonresidents were three men who all died while in Fairbanks. One was in his 60s and the other two were in their 50s.

Of the 41 Alaska residents who died with COVID-19, two people were in their 20s and two were in their 30s.

The people whose deaths were reported Friday were: 11 Anchorage residents — two who were 80 or older, three in their 70s, two in their 50s, two in their 40s, one in their 30s and one in their 20s; six Wasilla residents — one 80 or older, two in their 70s, one in their 60s, one in their 50s and one in their 30s; four Fairbanks residents — one 80 or older, two in their 60s and one in their 50s; three Juneau residents — one in their 60s and two in their 50s; three Ketchikan residents — all 80 or older; two Soldotna residents — one in their 70s and one in their 20s; two Bethel residents — one in their 70s and one in their 60s; one Northwest Arctic Borough resident 80 or older; one North Pole resident in his 70s; one Tok resident in her 70s; one Willow resident in his 60s; one Palmer resident in his 60s; one Big Lake resident in his 70s; one Kenai resident in his 60s; one Sitka resident in his 50s; one Petersburg resident in his 60s; and one Homer resident in her 70s.

The Homer woman was the only death that occurred recently, the state health department reported.

Zink pointed out that some of the deaths reported Friday were from a backlog, coming from April, May and June. The vast majority, however, occurred in August.

“I think it was humbling to me to read through the ages and the locations and just thinking about each of these as individual people,” Zink said. “And really the burden of disease that we’re seeing across the state. Everyone from people in their 20s to people in their 80s.”

Zink also emphasized that the “vast majority” of new COVID-19 cases in Alaska continue to be among people who are unvaccinated. The most recent monthly report from the state Section of Epidemiology shows that, in the month of July, 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alaska were among unvaccinated people.

The state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that 58.5% of all eligible Alaskans age 12 and older are now fully vaccinated, and that nearly 63% have gotten an initial vaccine dose.

She said the best advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains for people to get their complete series of a vaccine, although there is a robust conversation happening at the federal level about booster shots.

“Primary vaccine is the most important step that we have against this virus,” Zink said. “So more important than boosters is getting that primary series.”

Zink spoke to the process that takes place with the CDC and FDA when it comes to recommending boosters for certain groups or not, calling it “the most safe and robust” process in the world for looking at vaccines.

“They’re probably the safest thing that we do in medicine,” she said. “Safer than most over the counter medications that we use.”

At the end of the press conference, Crum said Alaskans should continue to expect high case counts over the next week.

“The process we have in place to report both the current cases as well as the backlog is going to show high numbers,” he said. “And we want to be forthcoming to Alaskans about that. We also do know that there’s a high likelihood of another large subset of deaths that are going to go through the verification process.”

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

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