Alaska’s COVID-19 cases rise, worries grow over hospital capacity

Samples for COVID-19 testing are collected using a cotton swab like the one pictured here from the lab at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hospital in Bethel, Alaska. (Photo by Katie Basile / KYUK)

Alaska has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases over the last week. Daily case counts had been hovering in the upper double digits earlier this month, but have been above a hundred cases a day for the last six days.

Thomas Hennessy, an epidemiologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, says cases are rising in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks and northwest Alaska.

He said the reproductive number, or the number of people someone with COVID-19 will infect, has increased from at or below 1 to about 1.1 in the last month.

That might not seem like a lot, but “that’s a disturbing trend because it’s been slowly creeping up,” he said. “And what that means is that each case is, for some reason that we can’t quite identify, infecting more people on average than we were about a month ago.”

At the start of the pandemic, the reproductive number was about 2. Hennessy said returning to that level of growth now, when the total number of cases is much higher, is concerning.

“If we get to that level, then we have that exponential growth and an outbreak that could be out of control,” he said.

As far as the state’s health care resources are concerned, Hennessy said inpatient bed capacity is already strained right now, as more people opt for surgeries or elective procedures later in the year when they’ve met their deductibles. COVID-19 hospitalizations haven’t spiked significantly, but with flu season approaching, Hennessy urged Alaskans to get flu shots to help prevent further strain on the system.