While pediatric deaths from COVID-19 are a small fraction of overall deaths (left), the proportion of pediatric cases has been growing during the omicron wave (right). (CDC image)

Alaska this month became the 47th state to report its first pediatric deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

The fatalities both occurred in mid-2021, during the delta surge. State health officials nevertheless remain optimistic that the current omicron wave has plateaued, and that the high infection rates among residents of all ages will soon be coming down.

Dr. Anne Zink is the chief medical officer for the state.

“Sadly, we did have our two first pediatric deaths that we are sharing here in the state,” she said. “These did happen a bit ago, and it took a while for the death certificate review process to come through. Both infants were less than 12 months old in the South Central region.”

The only other detail the Department of Health and Social Services would provide about the infants is that both were Alaska residents.

During a weekly statewide press conference on February 3, department officials said that pediatric deaths are particularly tragic, and run counter to the widespread idea held by the public that COVID-19 presents no risk to children.

The two infants died during the delta surge last year, which generally caused more severe illness and strained the capacity of the state’s hospitals. During the current omicron surge, severe illness and deaths are down, and hospitals are functioning well – but far more people are contracting the omicron variant, including children. 

And while most children are at low risk of severe COVID disease, Zink said the rising numbers are of concern.

“A lot of people are mixing, kids need to be back in school and doing lots of things,” said Zink. “But what we have seen with the number of childhood cases in the past has just been a real increase with this more recent surge. And that’s been very different than early on in the pandemic. And you can see this across the regions in the country. And here (in Alaska), when we look at the number of adult cases compared to child cases, again, those child cases clearly are going up as well.” 

The number of cases nationally is now coming down – and in Alaska we may be seeing a plateau within the next week. The BA.2 variant of omicron has been detected in the state, but it doesn’t appear any more virulent than the original omicron (BA.1), and vaccines and medications remain quite effective.

Zink said that Alaska has a roadmap – if not back to “normal” – it’s to a better place than we were two years ago.

“COVID is going to be here with us for a very long time, if not forever, and it will be probably continue to change,” said Zink. “And we’ll have surges and we’ll have variants, and we’ll learn new things. Science isn’t fixed, it’s a process. And we’ll continue to learn and respond as we have challenges moving forward. But our tools and our resources in 2022 are definitely different than our tools and resources in 2020. So when we started, when we were helping to support that flight from Wuhan, we didn’t know how this virus spread, we didn’t have PPE (personal protective equipment), we didn’t have a test for it. We didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have treatments. And we are at really different place now in 2022: Most of the Alaska population has either been vaccinated or has previously had COVID-19. And while both of those things can wane over time, they still provide protection. We have treatments like we never had before, we have more masking and tools. And we are finding ways to be together, have our kids in school, gather and do the things that are important to us moving forward.” 

The state Section of Epidemiology expects omicron to taper off in Alaska in the near future, just as it has elsewhere in the country, and with the decline in cases will come a relaxation of some of the layers of mitigation that have been in place since last fall – but only some. Individual responsibility will continue to play a large role in controlling the pandemic.

Dr. Zink said an immunocompromised person going through chemo, and a fully-vaccinated seven-year old who’s already low risk, will protect themselves differently post-omicron. “There are as many different solutions as there are people in the state,” she said.