Alaska reports 66 additional COVID-19 deaths, most identified through death certificate review

Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 2:26 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2021 at 10:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The state reported an additional 66 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, most of which were identified through the routine, sometimes lengthy death certificate review process.

Of those deaths, 65 were among Alaska residents and one was a nonresident who died while in the state. These bring the total number of resident deaths since the pandemic began to 659, and the number of nonresident COVID-19 deaths to 24.

Of the 66 total deaths, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said Tuesday that 10 were recent, while the rest were identified through the review process. Some of the deaths occurred as far back as April, according to the state health department, but most were in September and October.

State health officials have explained in the past that, while some deaths are reported to the state soon after they happen, others are discovered through a death certificate review process. It is routine, and can sometimes take up to several weeks.

Clint Farr, operations manager for the Alaska Division of Public Health, explained the process in a call with reporters last month when Alaska was experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, due in part to a data backlog at the time.

Farr detailed the two primary ways deaths are reported to the state — 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,” he said at the time. “When a death occurs, a physician, a doctor fills out the death record and the physicians make the call for the cause of death.”

Physicians, not the state, determine the cause of death. It has to be a medical opinion, Farr said.

The death record is then registered by Alaska’s vital records section, and then sent to the National Center of Health Statistics. The center codes the cause of death into a number, Farr explained.

“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 65 deaths reported Tuesday involved men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s and older, and were residents from communities across the state including Kotzebue, Fairbanks, North Pole, the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, the Kusilvak Census Area, Hooper Bay, the Bethel Census Area, Palmer, Wasilla, Big Lake, Anchorage, Cordova, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Kenai, Seward, Homer, Juneau, the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area and Ketchikan.

The greatest number of deaths were residents from Anchorage and Wasilla. The nonresident who died was a woman in her 70s who was diagnosed on Valdez.

Also on Tuesday, the state reported more than 2,800 additional COVID-19 infections and 213 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said it’s fair to say the cluster of additional COVID-19 deaths from September and October could be indicative of the state’s ongoing virus surge, but that the organization uses other metrics that show it’s not going away any time soon.

Data on COVID-19 deaths from the state lags, Kosin said, so deaths aren’t used as a key indicator when it comes to hospitals. The association uses COVID-19 cases and hospitalization numbers to indicate the level of COVID-19 surge and how it will affect health care facilities. With more than 200 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, Kosin said hospitals are “still very much” experiencing a surge.

Looking at seven-day case trends, Kosin said it could look recently like the state is plateauing in terms of virus transmission.

“But inside the hospital world we are definitely still experiencing a substantial surge,” he said.

State data also doesn’t indicate length of hospital stay, Kosin pointed out. Many COVID-positive patients experience long stays in the hospital and have complex care requirements, increasing the burden on facilities and health care workers.

“Our ICUs are slammed right now,” Kosin said. “A lot of them are spilling over into alternate units.”

Kosin said he hopes the state really is plateauing, but said it’s important to remember that, accounting for length of patient stay and care needs for COVID-19 patients, it’s going to take a while for the system to “clear out.”

“We are not going to feel that relief within the hospitals immediately,” he said.

While the state reported more than 2,800 new COVID-19 cases over the last four days, Alaska no longer has the highest rate of new cases per capita in the nation. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday show that Alaska now ranks fourth in that regard, behind Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The state health department reported 724 new cases on Friday, 1,022 cases on Saturday, 580 cases on Sunday and 516 on Monday. These cases were not reported until Tuesday due to Monday being a state holiday.

The state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that 59.5% of all eligible Alaskans age 12 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and that more than 64% have gotten at least an initial dose of a vaccine.

Of the 2,842 COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday, 2,785 of them were identified among Alaska residents of the following communities:

  • Anchorage: 964
  • Wasilla: 361
  • Fairbanks: 219
  • Palmer: 162
  • Juneau: 87
  • Soldotna: 86
  • Kenai: 85
  • North Pole: 75
  • Bethel Census Area: 74
  • Eagle River: 71
  • Kodiak: 53
  • Northwest Arctic Borough: 38
  • Dillingham Census Area: 35
  • North Slope Borough: 34
  • Kusilvak Census Area: 30
  • Valdez: 29
  • Nome: 24
  • Nome Census Area: 24
  • Kenai Peninsula Borough North: 23
  • Homer: 21
  • Willow: 19
  • Chugiak: 17
  • Delta Junction: 17
  • Kotzebue: 16
  • Sterling: 16
  • Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon: 16
  • Utqiagvik: 15
  • Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area: 15
  • Matanuska-Susitna Borough: 13
  • Sutton-Alpine: 12
  • Bethel: 11
  • Copper River Census Area: 10
  • Big Lake: 9
  • Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula: 9
  • Nikiski: 8
  • Anchor Point: 7
  • Ester: 7
  • Dillingham: 6
  • Houston: 6
  • Kenai Peninsula Borough South: 6
  • Sitka: 6
  • Girdwood: 4
  • Aleutians West Census Area: 3
  • Healy: 3
  • Petersburg: 3
  • Unalaska: 3
  • Denali Borough: 2
  • Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area: 2
  • Salcha: 2
  • Seward: 2
  • Tok: 2
  • Cordova: 1
  • Kodiak Island Borough: 1
  • Southeast Fairbanks Census Area: 1
  • Wrangell: 1

The state also reported an additional 57 nonresident COVID-19 cases over the last four days, throughout the state, with 16 of them in Anchorage and 15 in Wasilla.

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

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