As COVID rates continue decline in Alaska, how close are we to end of pandemic?

State epidemiologist says hospitalizations, deaths are best way to gauge severity of community transmission
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization still consider the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, despite drop in case numbers.
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 1:31 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization still consider the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, despite the continued drop in case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths around the nation and globally.

With mask mandates and lockdowns a thing of the past now that vaccines and updated booster shots have been made widely available in the United States, a trip out in public would hardly give credence to the idea that society is still very much amid a pandemic, by the definition of the word.

So, how close is Alaska — and the world — to finally ending the ordeal after more than two and a half years? Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health, said after five dominant waves of coronavirus surges, the end of the pandemic is becoming clearer.

“At some point, there will be more predictability with this virus, as we’ve seen with influenza,” McLaughlin said in a recent interview. “We know with the flu, there’s going to be more cases in the winter months.”

Since March 2020 when the first case of the original COVID-19 strain was detected in Alaska, over 281,000 separate cases have been detected in the state and 1,329 Alaskans have died from COVID-19 complications.

On a global scale, cases and deaths are down to some of the lowest levels seen since March 2020, when the pandemic first took a firm hold on the United States.

In Alaska, community transmission stayed high — with case rates well over 400 per 100,000 residents — until recently. The Municipality of Anchorage’s latest case rates were recorded at 94 per 100,000, while other major regions of the state hovered just over the 100 mark.

“That said, there still is a lot of COVID circulating, so people still need to be aware and not let their guard down in respect to COVID hospitalizations and deaths,” McLaughlin said.

The true number of positive COVID-19 cases recorded in Alaska is likely higher, McLaughlin said, due to the introduction of at-home tests last fall. Since at-home tests are not able to be tracked by the state health department (unless an individual reports the test results themselves), it is difficult to know the exact number of positive cases.

“The hallmark of this pandemic, five waves in, is we were not able to predict when the next wave was coming,” McLaughlin said.

However, McLaughlin said state officials can still look to hospitalization and death numbers to get a sense of where Alaska is amid the pandemic, since those numbers are reported by hospitals and the state medical examiner.

Currently, there are 66 people hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms across the state, according to the department of health. McLaughlin said that number is still not where health officials want to see it, but is a far cry from the numbers seen during various peaks in case counts, such as the delta variant surge in October 2021, when the state peaked at over 240 hospitalizations at one time.

Those numbers resulted in hospitals in Anchorage and other communities statewide being forced to operate in crisis mode, as doctors had to make decisions on who received care and who didn’t due to overwhelming demand. McLaughlin said the biggest concerns now lie with residents in the oldest age groups, chiefly those 70 years old and above, which is where the state is seeing the majority of new cases.

McLaughlin added that more recent variants of the coronavirus — namely the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the omicron strain — have been less severe. The most recent COVID-19 surge that Alaska saw was only this past July, McLaughlin said, with about 85 to 90% of those cases being recorded as omicron BA.5 cases.

During that surge, which paled in comparison to previous surges, Alaska saw case counts go up but did not see the correlating rise in deaths or hospitalizations. McLaughlin said this was due in part to the two omicron variants causing less severe disease in infected people.

“One of the most intrinsic characteristics of a virus is that it tends to be less virulent over time,” McLaughlin said. “If the virus doesn’t kill the host, it has more of an opportunity to transmit to another host.”

McLaughlin said the newest booster dose protects against two strains: the original Wuhan strain — which the original vaccine was designed to protect against — and the two latest omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5. The new booster is now available nationwide to anyone ages 12 and older that is at least two months removed from their most recent COVID-19 dose, whether that be the initial booster or the original two-shot series.

It should also help protect against long-haul COVID, a health condition described by medical experts as COVID-19 symptoms lasting for weeks or even months. Typically, patients who suffer from long-haul COVID have recurring symptoms such as fatigue, breathing difficulties, coughing, chest pain, and changes in smell or taste.

McLaughlin said the data suggests that the likelihood of having long-haul COVID is lower in people that have previously been vaccinated or have already been infected, with estimates ranging as high as 30% greater for unprotected people.

So what’s next? McLaughlin said it largely depends on what strains emerge over time.

“No one knows for sure, but everyone is hopeful, as the virus continues to mutate over time, our bodies will be more and more adept to fighting off the virus,” he said.