For more than a month, coronavirus infections across Alaska have increased, with increased hospitalizations and escalating test-positive rates. According to most indicators, the pandemic here shows no signs of slowing down.
But despite these alarming trends, some figures have so far remained stable: Alaska’s per capita COVID-19 mortality rate remains among the lowest in the nation, currently alongside Vermont with 9 deaths per 100,000 people. Data from a state-published report this week showed the national COVID-19 mortality rate was about seven times higher than Alaska’s.
As of Thursday, a total of 77 Alaskans have died from the virus.
When asked this week why Alaska avoids a much worse fate than elsewhere – New York City’s per capita virus mortality rate is almost 32 times higher than Alaska’s, for example. Health officials say there are many reasons, including the early response to the pandemic Alaska, a relatively low population in nursing homes and a younger overall trend in the overall population.
But state health officials say the low mortality is an unstable measure and that it can change rapidly.
More than 20% of the state’s deaths occurred in the previous month.
Dr Anne Zink, Medical Director of Alaska said: “When you get a lot of cases in a short period of time, you can overwhelm the health care system very quickly, and you will get a lot more. many deaths. “And I think that’s what we’re at stake.”
Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist, says Alaska’s early successes with missions and community involvement in keeping out of society, hiding, and avoiding gathering played a key role. in reducing the total number.
“That effort early in the pandemic turned to a very low number of cases in Alaska,” he said. “And that basically gave us time to learn more about how to best care for COVID patients.”
By the time of the Alaska spike in July, the medical staff were getting ready, he said.
“At that time, we already had a few drugs available and had a better understanding of how to take care of the patient,” McLaughlin said.
Alaska’s early and positive screening strategy, a key tool for curbing outbreaks and preventing the spread in communities, is also “potentially affecting our numbers,” Zink said in the same. call.
Mortality is calculated by dividing the total number of deaths by the total number of infections.
During the summer, the state tested a large number of healthy people, including out-of-state seafood workers and tourists, who were offered free testing at many airports, which allowed The public health team discovered more cases and helped bring down overall mortality.
Alaska’s mortality rate is also low partly because young people are less likely to die from the disease, and in Alaska, they account for a disproportionate rate of state viral infections, health officials say. know.
That’s because young people – especially those in their 20s and 30s – are more likely to become essential workers or work outside the home. They also tend to go to bars and gather more, and during the summer they mainly form the widely-tested fisheries workforce.
Many of them also have young children, who may carry the virus and mingle with others, and may be less able to obey tasks.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while everyone is equally likely to become infected with the virus, the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 increases with age.
Eight out of 10 coronavirus deaths in the US involve adults over 65 years of age.
In Alaska, people over the age of 60 account for only 15% of viral infections, but about 80% of all deaths.
Also helping the state’s low mortality rate is that Alaska is largely able to avoid major outbreaks in nursing homes, in part because the state has the lowest rates of hospital beds per capita of any other state. , Zink said.
“A lot of our nursing homes are scattered, or people are being cared for in a home or in a family,” she said. “So we don’t have nursing homes with thousands of people, where it can happen quickly and affect a lot of people.”
Nationwide, more than one-third of coronavirus deaths in the US have been linked to nursing homes, according to The New York Times.
According to the CDC, people in nursing homes have a higher risk of dying from the virus, because they are older and have an underlying health condition, plus the virus can spread more easily in concentrated places. crowded.
But while Alaska for many months largely avoided the scale of outbreaks in nursing homes in other states, as the number of cases began to increase, outbreaks in high-end living facilities – including even the State-run Pioneers – began to appear.
Two residents died at the Anchorage Pioneer Home, part of an outbreak that began in early August. And an outbreak identified in late September at Fairbanks Pioneer Home has now grown to more than 60 employees and residents, with two virus-related deaths reported as of this week.
Bruce Chandler, a medical officer with the Anchorage Health Department, said that in Anchorage, there were outbreaks involving many assisted living facilities.
In the end, more cases in the general community turned into more cases in these more vulnerable populations, more hospitalizations and more deaths.
Alaska has been fortunate so far to keep mortality low. But health officials say death, like hospitalization, is a lagging indicator, and with the number of illnesses increasing and the number of hospitalizations increasing, the death toll will continue to rise.
On Thursday, the state reported six COVID-19-related deaths, matching the highest number of deaths the state reported in a day since the pandemic began. In both cases, officials said some of the cases did not occur recently and were identified through the standard review of death certificates.
“There’s a lot of hope,” said Zink, “And there’s a lot more work to be done. We still have the lowest death rate in the country ”.
If Alaska follows national trends, there have been almost 500 deaths so far, she said.
“We made a difference in Alaska from the beginning because Alaskans care for each other,” she said, emphasizing that taking individual steps to mitigate the virus is really effective.
“We really need everyone there,” she said.