‘We have many reasons to be optimistic’: Daily COVID-19 cases in Alaska hit 5-month low

A public health worker in a tent outside Juneau International Airport bags a freshly collected nasal swab for COVID-19 testing.
A public health worker in a tent outside Juneau International Airport bags a freshly collected nasal swab for COVID-19 testing on Sept. 1, 2020. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Alaska recorded 40 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the lowest daily case count since September. 

Hospitalizations have also dropped to their lowest levels since July, with 33 Alaskans being treated with confirmed COVID-19 cases. And on Wednesday, the Alaska Native Medical Center announced it didn’t have any patients being treated for COVID-19 for the first time in over seven months. 

RELATED: For the first time in 6 months, Bethel has a week with no new COVID-19 cases

The daily case count bounced back to 213 on Thursday, but overall case rates remain on a downward trend. 

At a news conference Thursday, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said trends are pointed in the right direction. 

“I’m really excited,” she said. “It is really great to see these numbers in general decreasing … We have many reasons to be cautious but we have many reasons to be optimistic.”

State health officials said there could be several reasons for the decline. One of the main reasons is the amount of immunity Alaskans likely have, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said. Nationally, experts estimate about 40% of Americans have some form of immunity, through natural immunity post-infection or from being vaccinated.

There are no precise data for Alaska. The state’s infection rate is slightly lower than the nation’s, but the vaccination rate is the highest in the country.

“I would guess that we’re probably somewhere around that (40%) range as well,” said McLaughlin.

Over 18% of Alaska’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine, the highest rate of any state in the U.S., according to the New York Times.

Still, McLaughlin said Alaska is nowhere near herd immunity where enough people have protection from the virus that it dies out. With new coronavirus variants spreading more easily, estimates suggest that between 70-80% of the population would need immunity to reach that point. 

“Are we concerned about a resurgence of cases in Alaska, or nationally? Certainly, yes, we’re always concerned about that,” McLaughlin said.

RELATED: Scientists team up to make Alaska a leader in the hunt for new COVID-19 variants.

One new variant has been found in Alaska: B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, was detected in a sample from December, and is estimated to be 50% more contagious than the original virus. While so far it’s the only one, only a fraction of all Alaska’s positive tests are sampled to for their genetic variation.

But health officials stressed Alaskans have learned a lot about the virus, including mitigation strategies such as masking and hand washing, which can help contain the virus in the near future.

“I feel like we’re just running towards that goal line as fast as we can with vaccine, while we’re watching over our shoulder for variants,” said Zink.

She said Alaska is now on the offensive in its response to the virus.