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State expects ‘dramatic’ increase in COVID-19 cases over past 48 hours, as omicron sweeps through Alaska

Still, epidemiologists see ‘promising’ data on severity of illness
Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 7:49 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The state of Alaska’s chief medical officer expects a dramatic increase in the number of new COVID-19 infections reported for the last 48 hours, she said in a media availability Thursday afternoon. But that news is paired with optimism that less severe disease from omicron will prevent the influx and strain on hospitals that the state and nation saw in previous waves.

Dr. Anne Zink said the preliminary information coming in shows that case numbers, to be officially reported Friday, would be much higher than recent reports.

“We have seen a really significant change in cases and case reporting even in the last 24 hours,” Zink said. “I think it’s pretty clear that omicron is here and spreading across the state of Alaska.”

Alaska already saw a 145% increase in new cases over the last week compared to the week of Dec. 22-28.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state’s chief epidemiologist, agreed. He said the public health lab is screening positive COVID-19 tests for an “S gene target failure,” which indicates that they are likely the omicron variant.

“What we’ve found over the past five days or so is anything from 80 to 95% of the samples that are tested are coming back positive for that target failure,” McLaughlin said Thursday. “indicating that the vast, vast majority of cases are omicron.”

Omicron became the dominant variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the U.S. in mid-December, according to the CDC. Now, the variant represents 95.4% of nationwide cases, Zink said.

The Alaska health team is hoping that trends indicating less severe disease and a lower rate of hospitalization in other parts of the world will hold true here in Alaska. Currently, 5.7% of Alaska’s hospitalized patients have COVID-19.

McLaughlin says data from other countries and the U.S. is hopeful. Along with milder disease and lower hospitalization rates among those infected with the omicron variant, “among those people who are hospitalized, we’re seeing less severe cases in general, so that’s a really promising sign and we’re hopeful that will be the trend in Alaska,” he said.

There are also indications that antibodies from the omicron variant could help fight off cases of the highly virulent delta variant, which caused a surge in COVID-19 deaths in the state of Alaska and elsewhere.

“Some early data’s showing that maybe it’s also protective against delta,” Zink said. “So if we have a variant that’s widely transmissible, moves around, but provides some decent protection against other variants that were causing very severe disease, that’s a good thing, and this is what happens with pandemics as a virus kind of changes and mutates and the population as a whole builds up some degree of immunity.”

As the omicron variant spreads, and Alaskans return to the state for holiday travel, demand for tests — both at-home, and laboratory — has increased. In addition to long lines, earlier this week, a number of testing sites in Anchorage were closed due to weather-related staffing and equipment shortages. Shortly after, sites handing out free at-home tests ran out, also attributed to the Mat-Su weather issues, where Anchorage stored its state-provided at-home tests.

Test positivity in Alaska has spiked to its highest levels during the pandemic, state data shows, going from a recent low of 3% in mid-December, to a Jan. 4 positivity rate of 14.67%. But as testing habits change, that’s a metric the state department of health says it’s not relying on so heavily. With more Alaskans using at-home tests, which are not reported to the state or federal governments, and some providers finding reporting of each negative test burdensome, the state is going to change the way it collects and reports testing data.

“We’re moving more towards looking at big trends over time,” McLaughlin said, comparing it to how the state tracks influenza each year. “You don’t need to test everybody to be able to see when influenza rates are increasing and how quickly they’re increasing, as long as a subset of the population is testing, and that will continue through omicron and throughout the pandemic as long as it lasts.”

Some testing providers, like small schools, fishing boat companies, and others, will no longer be required to report negative tests starting Monday.

“The amount of time and work really inhibited and made it challenging for them to even do testing,” Zink said.

Focusing on positive cases and larger trends rather than negative tests will streamline the process, she said.

The state’s dashboard will still include the number of tests performed, but as more tests performed at home, both positive and negative will no longer be reflected, and the state will remove the percent positivity rate from its display. Early in the pandemic, the metric was used to determine whether localities were doing enough testing and catching enough COVID-19 cases, but now, the number is less telling of actual trends in a community.

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