Alaska’s omicron surge has put it in front of the pack in per-capita infection rates, but public health officials are seeing some promising signs: Hospitals are not filling up as fast as they did during last fall’s delta surge, not as many patients are in intensive care, and infection rates are rapidly dropping in other parts of the world where omicron got an earlier start. (Alaska DHSS image)

Statistically speaking, Alaska is leading a race most residents would rather not win. As of January 27, Alaska had more new COVID-19 infections per capita than any other state.

Health officials are concerned about the wave – there are a lot of sick people in Alaska – but there is room for hope, too.

With almost 30,000 cases in just the last two weeks, Alaska has had more infections per 100,000 residents than the other contenders, namely Oklahoma and Washington state.

But since the emergence of the omicron variant in South Africa last year, the latest wave of infections to sweep the country has generally been east to west, and Alaska is peaking just as cases on the eastern seaboard subside.

Note: Vaccination remains the most potent tool in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about vaccination at the KCAW Coronavirus Information Hub.

It’s not all bad news, however. The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, told reporters last week (1-27-22) that Alaska was hit harder than most other states by the delta spike last year, which makes weathering the omicron surge a bit easier.

“Unfortunately, we had a bad delta surge here in this state,” she said. “And what happened was that the (DHSS) team got really good at being able to put in a lot of cases quickly, and being able to get them up and out to the public quickly. The health care sector started to meet on a regular basis, the crisis care committee started to meet, and we figured out how to get additional nurses. And some of the other states are just really being hit by the omicron variant in the same way. And so they are very much underwater, trying to figure out how to respond.”

There also isn’t the same atmosphere of crisis around the omicron surge, as compared to delta last year – when Alaska’s hospitals quickly filled up, and seriously ill or injured patients were forced to spend long hours in Emergency Departments, waiting for beds to open up. Currently, just 12-percent of the state’s hospital beds are taken by COVID patients. And many of those patients are not as  ill as they were during delta.

“But that is very different than the conversations we were having last fall,” said Zink, “when we were thinking about how we can’t transfer patients in, or we don’t have dialysis right now. Really, staffing is the limitation. And with omicron, we’re just seeing a lot of outpatients and ED (Emergency Department) patients, but we’re not seeing some of the really significant ICU limitations that we saw before. So from a hospital capacity standpoint, even with our high numbers, this feels very different. And hospitals are able to respond really well at this point. It’s been great to work with them.”

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has been operating under a public health emergency order since April of last year (and an emergency disaster declaration prior to that). Although it’s premature to rescind that order, the head of Alaska’s Infection Disease program, Dr. Louisa Castrodale, says health officials are already preparing to move COVID-19 into another phase, as an endemic disease to be managed like influenza, for example.

“And I think what we’re trying to do now is also learn as we’re sort of integrating (COVID into our permanent infectious disease management program),” said Castrodale, “and also figuring out what resources are because you know, there isn’t a blank check forever. I think we also need to figure out what were the things that we did really well with COVID are, that we learned from COVID, and strengthened our systems with lab reporting or with outreach, and how do we integrate those into what we have been doing for public health moving forward?

And when exactly will it be over? State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McClaughlin says he’s encouraged by what he’s seeing in other parts of the world, especially South Africa, where omicron first took off, as countries drop out of high alert.

Alaska is not there yet.

“We will know,” said McLaughlin, “when the map is no longer all red.”