State health officials say there is a lot of COVID-19 spreading in Alaska and, like other parts of the country, it’s mainly the Omicron BA.5 subvariant of the coronavirus.
Hospitalizations in Alaska have been mostly up since April, as has the case count. Even more people use home tests, the results of which are not reported to the state.
Still, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the vaccine and boosters — including a second booster available for those who are immunocompromised, and those 50 and older — are helping to prevent infections or reduce serious illness.
And McLaughlin said, even with the resurgence of Covid, people are better protected and have better treatment than when the pandemic began more than two years ago.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Joe McLaughlin: It is best to start these medications as soon as possible after your test is positive. So if you woke up this morning feeling sick, and you have a home antigen test, go ahead and get yourself tested. And if you test positive, go ahead and contact your healthcare provider. Now, if you don’t have a primary care provider, there are other options. If you live in an urban environment, you may go to urgent care. If you live in a more rural setting, you can go and contact a public health nurse who may be able to link you to a provider and help link you to treatment if you need it. Or if you’re in a village, you can contact a health assistant and try and set up a telemedicine visit or some other type of visit where you, you know, talk to the health assistant about your symptoms and they can take your Find out about risk factors and whether you qualify for treatment.
Casey Grove: You look at those test results or hospitalizations, and you see an increase here, over the last few weeks, how does that compare to previous waves that we’ve seen? Or would you call it a wave? And do you have any ideas this game could be?
J.M: So if you look at the COVID-19 hospital dashboard, from our first big wave that happened in November, December of 2020, our biggest wave was, you know, in the winter of 2021, starting to go into 2022. But then in January 2022, we had another big wave. And then now these omicron waves that we’re experiencing are not that big in terms of amplitude. It is not so much in terms of number of hospital beds occupied daily. So that gives you an idea of the burden of hospitalizations associated with this Omicron wave that we’re experiencing. It’s not as high as we’ve seen with other variants. What does that translate to in terms of case? How many cases have we seen? That’s a little more difficult to answer because, again, we don’t have surveillance data on cases like we used to. But right now, our biggest concern is hospitalizations and deaths associated with Covid, and fortunately, the mortality rate is very low.
CG: It strikes me that to be infected now, two-plus years into this epidemic, as you have already mentioned, there are many more treatments that we did not have a few years ago. And I wonder if you can tell me about that and what impact that has had on the numbers nationally and in Alaska.
J.M: So there are many factors that are contributing to our low hospitalization rate and possibly our low mortality rate as well. Number one is that only certain variants that are circulating at the moment may be less viral than previous variants like the delta variant. Note that it was very lethal and we saw very high hospitalization and death rates with that delta variant. The other thing is, most Alaskans have had at least one or two doses of the vaccine. And we know that earlier vaccination reduces the risk of hospitalization and death, even with the omicron strain that circulates. And there are also many Alaskans who have had previous infections. And again, prior infection like prior vaccination is protective in more severe cases.
CG: Well, Dr. Joe, when will the epidemic end? I think people might want to know that.
J.M: I wish I had a crystal ball for this. I don’t know, you know, what we’re doing is we’re trying to take it one step at a time and deal with the different waves that are coming. This is a virus that will not go away. We are going to see the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in human populations for the foreseeable future, globally. And as we saw with influenza, like the 1918-1919 pandemic, when we saw the H1N1 influenza virus emerge into the human population and cause a huge pandemic with a really high death toll, that H1N1 virus is still circulating in the human population. Now, it’s much more mitigated. We now have much lower hospitalization and death rates than the H1N1 virus we saw in the 1918 pandemic. But it’s still circulating, and I suspect that what’s going to happen at some point with this SARS-CoV-2 virus, is we’re going to see one or more strains that continue to circulate only in the human population. And it may be that we will continue to see new variants emerge as we do year after year with influenza that we have to manage. And our treatments will continue to improve and our ability to prevent more serious infections will continue to improve. And hopefully, over time, the circulating virus strains will become more attenuated and less capable of causing serious disease, as we’ve seen with the many influenza variants that have emerged over the years.