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COVID-19 the third leading cause of death in Alaska so far in 2021, state data shows

Last two weeks of September were pandemic’s deadliest in the state
Nationally, the average daily rate of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are on...
Nationally, the average daily rate of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are on the decline.
Published: Oct. 22, 2021 at 8:00 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - COVID-19 has overtaken accidents as the Alaska’s third leading cause of death so far in 2021, according to state data.

Alaska is seeing the longest, highest surge in the pandemic, with the deadliest week coming in late September, and so far 13 straight weeks of a dozen or more Alaskans dying with the virus.

Data shared by the state Thursday shows that, according to data so far available for 2021, COVID-19 is the third leading underlying cause of death for Alaskans, behind cancers and heart diseases. The state’s review shows that 294 Alaskans had COVID-19 listed as the “underlying cause” of their death. People who died from COVID-19 as a contributor, but not the primary cause, are not included in that count. State records show that so far 673 Alaskans have died from the effects of COVID-19.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Health and Vital Records division presented the data in a Thursday media call. The data showed that Malignant Neoplasm, or cancer, is the state’s leading underlying cause of death so far in 2021, with 718 deaths, or 18.3% of those studied so far. Heart disease deaths numbered 618, or 15.7%, and COVID-19 accounted for 294, or 7.5%. More Alaskans have died from COVID-19 than from accidents so far this year, with 271 deaths so far marked as being caused by unintended injuries, or 6.9% of deaths.

To understand the difference between the 673 COVID-19 deaths reported by the state, and the 294 with COVID-19 as the “underlying cause,” the health department explained that each death certificate has four areas to document what led to a person’s death. The first item listed is to be noted as a person’s “immediate” cause of death. The remaining three line are for sequential conditions that lead to the first listed cause. The certificate instructs physicians to list the underlying cause, the “disease or injury that initiated the events resulting in death” last.

The state’s website explains using a heart attack as the immediate cause of death. The immediate cause is listed as a rupture of myocardium; the second, third and fourth causes are acute myocardial infarction, coronary artery thrombosis, and atherosclerotic coronary artery disease. Rebecca Topol, with the vital records department, said in this case, the underlying cause of the person’s death is coronary artery disease.

“The same thing happens with COVID,” Topol said. “You get COVID, you have pneumonia, then you have acute respiratory distress and then you die from that, not necessarily just from getting infected with COVID. Or some people may have had cancer or another condition that perhaps got worse because of the COVID (infection) and that’s what caused their death.”

The 294 COVID-19 deaths in the state’s report had COVID-19 listed as that underlying cause, and not as another ailment that was made worse by COVID-19, leading to the person’s death.

Late last week, the Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health System Tracker published a brief noting that in the U.S. in September 2021, COVID-19 became the top cause of death for people ages 35-54, overtaking accidents for those 35-44 and cancer for those 45-54.

The state’s reports of COVID-19 deaths have sometimes come in waves, as death certificates are reviewed, and the dates of those deaths are often not immediately clear on the day of release. But the state’s data dashboard distributes deaths based on the week in which they occurred. Looking at the data week by week in Alaska, starting early this summer when the delta variant appeared in the state, the number of deaths dramatically increases.

Week endingNumber of Alaska COVID-19 deaths
May 27, 20213
June 3, 20215
June 10, 20212
June 17, 20211
June 24, 20212
July 1, 20210
July 8, 20213
July 15, 20210
July 22, 20214
July 29, 202112
August 5, 202118
August 12, 202119
August 19, 202124
August 26, 202112
September 2, 202119
September 9, 202122
September 16, 202126
September 23, 202139
September 30, 202130
October 7, 202121 (preliminary)
October 14, 202115 (preliminary)
October 21, 202116 (preliminary)

The state saw single-digit deaths each week early on in the summer, and none the two weeks ending July 1 and 15, 2021. After that, deaths in Alaska quickly ramped up. Four the second to last week in July, then 12, then 18. Weekly, the state has seen a dozen or more COVID-19 deaths for 13 straight weeks. The week ending on Sept. 23, 39 Alaskans died from COVID-19, the most in one week during the entire pandemic.

That week the state announced that it would be contracting with Outside health care workers to alleviate the pressure on the state’s hospitals, and enacted crisis standards of care for most hospitals in the state. It’s also the week in which the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 hit a record high more than once. Those records have been broken again this week.

With more than three months at a dozen or more deaths per week, the state is how running a longer surge in deaths than the first COVID-19 wave in the winter of 2020, before vaccines were available. In that surge, eight of the nine weeks between Nov. 6 and Jan. 7 saw 12 or more COVID-19 deaths. During that first surge, the most deaths reported in one week was 30, which happened the week ending Dec. 24, 2020.

While Alaska’s case numbers seem to be plateauing rather than dropping from the recent surge, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink says hospitals are still strained due to the ongoing care many patients still need.

“Our cases have kind of been flat-ish,” Zink said Thursday. “but our (new) hospitalizations has gone down there a bit, but unfortunately just a lot of deaths here recently. We’re thinking about all those loved ones who have lost someone. COVID continues to be a highly contagious respiratory pathogen that’s affecting many Alaskans today.”

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