Sitka’s recent coronavirus surge has kept the community in high alert for several weeks now, with active cases currently hovering in the low 200s. In response, Alaska’s top doctor spoke to the Sitka Assembly on Tuesday night (7-27-21) about local and statewide trends, “breakthrough” cases, and new guidance from the CDC for vaccinated individuals.
When the state’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink spoke to the Sitka Assembly- she noted a trend specific to Sitka, and it wasn’t Xtratufs — it was the timing of the community’s recent COVID surge.
“You can see that Sitka has had a really different trend than the state and the nation. Overall, you can see that you guys have had a much bigger final surge here, or I hope it’s a final surge,” she said. “Well, the most recent surge along this line than the rest of the state or the country saw. You really had very little cases, overall, really, for most the pandemic and have been experiencing a much higher surge.”
Over the last two weeks, Sitka’s averaging around 20 new COVID cases a day, and another half-dozen hospitalizations were reported in the past few days.
Nevertheless, Zink said experiencing a surge at this stage of the pandemic was better than going through one last fall — a more vaccinated population is more protected from the virus, COVID tests are widely available, and the understanding of the virus has improved.
“We never like to see these surges, but kind of later in the pandemic, we do start to see a better decoupling between hospitalizations and deaths and cases overall,” she said.
Zink said early efforts to curb the spread of the virus were far from fruitless. While Alaska has reported over 74,000 cases since the pandemic began, Zink estimated that to date, at least 1000 lives had been saved statewide and 12,500 hospitalizations were avoided.
“So the work that has been done to date has made a huge difference in helping to mitigate this disease and to slow the spread,” she said. “And [I] really appreciate that partnership, and looking forward to continued partnership. Because unfortunately, while we may all be done with COVID, it is not done with us.”
Just hours before Zink spoke to the Assembly, the CDC updated its coronavirus mitigation guidelines. In a reversal, the federal agency now recommends vaccinated individuals mask in public or indoor spaces in areas with high COVID rates, like Sitka.
Zink said that’s due, in large part, to the more transmissible delta variant, which she said is present in Sitka and driving the uptick in cases throughout Alaska. Of the last wave of cases sequenced statewide, she said 80 % were the delta variant.
Zink said that while the vaccine is still highly effective against all coronavirus variants (statewide, 95 percent of hospitalizations and 98% of deaths have occurred in unvaccinated people according to Zink) — the recommendations have changed because the virus has changed.
“The vaccine looks to do a great job to prevent severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death. But we are seeing some decrease in the protection that we see in its ability to give it to other people. And that’s why it’s there,” she said. “We really are racing against time against this delta variant to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Zink said Sitka’s high rate of breakthrough cases weren’t unusual in a highly vaccinated population. Sitka had been tracking breakthrough cases publicly on its COVID dashboard, but late last week, city staff reported that the state health department had asked them to remove the data, citing “concerns.” Assembly Member Thor Christianson, who is also a member of the Emergency Operations Center, said they’d faced blowback from members of the public who questioned why the data was removed. Christianson asked why it couldn’t be made public again.
Zink says she wasn’t aware of the decision to remove the data.
“We didn’t know, and I honestly could care less if you guys have got your own data and are sharing it in any way that you want,” she said. “We started to get questions about the vaccine breakthrough data with Sitka. And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s quite cool they have it on their dashboard.’ And that was the last we had heard about it,” she said. “So we will follow up with our team internally. I guess our goal is not to remove any data or to take it away. And nor were we saying you can’t have any data.”
Zink reiterated that “ transparent, timely data” was a goal.
Listen to Dr, Zink’s full presentation and Q&A with the Sitka Assembly here: