In Interior Alaska, severe COVID-19 cases surge while vaccinations lag

A blocky cement building seen from the parking lot
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (Wikimedia Commons)

COVID-19 cases surged in Interior Alaska last week, and hospital staff were busy with a corresponding surge of patients. Fairbanks doctors are pointing to a direct relationship between the high case rate and the Interior’s low vaccination rate.

While the statewide case rate stayed stable last week, the numbers in Fairbanks and North Pole shot up. On Wednesday, 111 new cases were reported between the two cities. Outside the Fairbanks North Star Borough, other Interior communities surged as well.

Dr. Mark Simon works in the emergency department at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

“I can tell you that everyone who works in the emergency department is saying ‘Wow, there’s a lot of COVID coming in,’” Simon said. “Everyone who is working in the hospital taking care of patients is saying, ‘Wow, we have a lot of Covid in the hospital right now.’ This is at the level we had at our highest peak in the past.”

With 13 people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, the hospital’s intensive care unit is reporting its highest rates of the disease since January.

The area is a long way from herd immunity. The state reports that about 40% of eligible residents of the Fairbanks-North Star Borough have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 49% of the state as a whole.

A graph showing a spike in COVID 19 cases
Data from the Alaska Coronavirus dashboard. Screenshot taken April 26, 2021.

Simon sees a straight line between low vaccination rates and high disease rates.

“The Interior is near the bottom on vaccination rates, and near the top on COVID-19 cases. Communities with the lowest vaccination rate have the highest disease burden of COVID-19,” he said.

Simon said that the surge is so bad that doctors are calling their contacts to encourage people to get vaccinated — and to get their friends to get vaccinated.

“Talk to your family members, talk to your friends, talk to your coworkers, talk to your neighbors. Ask them about vaccination and then share your story of you getting vaccinated,” Simon said.

The state is trying to recover its tourist, fishing and summer jobs economy. Public health officials want Alaskans to be vaccinated before June. Simon said vaccinated workers and customers can help businesses stay open and the economy recover, but first the community transmission of the disease must be stopped.

“We know that the more cases of COVID-19 you have, the more people will have to stay in the hospital, the more people will get long COVID — debilitating symptoms for weeks and months — the more people die,” Simon said.

Last month, Alaska became the first state to open vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older. Alaska led the nation in vaccination rates early on in the vaccination effort thanks to a quick response from the tribal healthcare system, but has since fallen behind the national average.

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