Region sees 41 active COVID cases
By Peter Loewi
COVID cases in the region jumped over the holidays and the weekend. Nineteen cases were identified between Thursday, December 30, 2021 and Sunday, January 2, 2022 and 30 more on Monday, January 3.
Currently, there are 41 active cases in the region: 25 in Nome, 10 in St. Michael, five in Stebbins and one in Brevig.
Case numbers had been trending down for the last several weeks, but the holiday season – and the incredible transmissibility of the Omicron variant – brought them back up.
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 3,689 cases between December 27 and January 2, a 262 percent increase over the week before. This number will be sure to keep rising, as the state reported 2,872 new cases on January 3 alone.
The country as a whole has seen a 204 percent increase in the same time frame, including a staggering 1,017,376 cases on January 3, which means that another spike could come to the region soon.
In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said that the Omicron variant appears to be more capable of immune evasion than previous variants, meaning that previous infection or vaccination may not be as effective against this variant. While severity of the Omicron infections appears to be lower than with previous variants, the speed with which it was been moving could overwhelm hospital systems.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s State of the Union that “we can’t be complacent in these reports [of a less severe virus.] We’re still going to get a lot of hospitalizations.”
On December 27, the Center for Disease Control updated and shortened their recommendations for isolation and quarantine from 10 to five days. Upon receiving a positive test result, asymptomatic cases or those without fever for 24 hours should isolate for five days. The CDC explained in a statement that “the change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.”
People who have been exposed to the virus should also isolate for five days, followed by five days of strict mask use.
These guidelines, however, caused a public outcry, as there was no requirement to get a negative test. During a January 2 interview on ABC’s This Week, Dr. Fauci said, that adding a negative test before leaving isolation is “something that is now under consideration.”
Dr. Fauci also said that he’s “still very concerned about the tens of millions of people who are not vaccinated at all because even though many of them are going to get asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic, a fair number of them are going to get severe disease.”
Many of those tens of millions of people who are not vaccinated are children, and CDC data shows that pediatric hospital admissions are at a record high. Between December 21 and 27, the seven-day average for pediatric hospitalizations increased 58 percent across the USA. According to the CDC, of the 74 million Americans under 18, fewer than 25 percent are vaccinated.
In the region
The Norton Sound Health Corporation identified five cases in the region between Wednesday, Dec. 22 and Sunday, Dec. 26. Of these, three were in Nome and two were in Stebbins.
There was one new travel-related positive in a Nome resident identified on December 27, bringing the regionwide total to 14 active cases: Nine in Nome, three in Unalakleet, and two in Stebbins.
Tuesday, Dec. 28 saw three close contact cases were identified as others healed, and the total cases in the region slowed to nine: Five in Nome, two in Unalakleet, and two in Stebbins. The NSHC was notified of a third death on December 28, 2021, but had no more information.
On Wednesday, Dec. 29, four tests came back positive, all in Nome. Three were close contacts with other known positive cases, and one was through community spread. Of the 19 new cases found over the weekend, four were community spread, eight were close contacts and seven were travel-related. Of the 30 cases identified on Monday, Jan. 3, one case in St. Michael was travel-related and 12 were close contacts to previously identified cases. In Nome, one was a close contact and 10 were travel-related. In Stebbins, all patients were close contacts of previously identified cases. The case in Brevig was travel-related. Three of the individuals who tested positive are NSHC employees.
During the NSHC’s Tribal Leader Call on Monday, Jan. 3, Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said that “we’re going to start to see a surge of cases in our region, I’m sure. A lot of the cases we’re seeing right now are actually people who have come back from travel outside.”
Dr. Peterson said that both the CDC and the State are recommending testing more often, like before and after travel or events.
Preliminary studies suggest that the Omicron variant might have a shorter incubation period, meaning someone might experience symptoms in the first three days.
Testing for COVID-19 is open daily for asymptomatic people from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Nome Operations Building Testing Center. The testing tent at the Nome airport is still open to test incoming travelers, albeit on a voluntary basis.
The Cough and Cold Clinic is available for testing every day for symptomatic patients. It is located on the first floor of the hospital and is open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on weekends.
NSHC also expects to get a supply of Pfizer’s new Paxlovid sometime in January. The five-day, at-home treatment received Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA on Wednesday, Dec. 22. Merck’s Molnupiravir pill also was approved for emergency use the following day.
Both of these drugs are expected to be effective against the Omicron variant, because they don’t target the spike protein, the part which has mutated, but instead prevent the virus from replicating. This is welcome news to many, as Omicron appears to be overcoming all of the Monoclonal Antibody treatments which have been used to treat severe infection in the past.
NSHC’s press release following the first signs of a holiday spike stated that “Providers encourage everyone to get a booster vaccine as soon as possible, since studies have shown that getting a third dose of either Pfizer or Moderna is the best way to avoid serious illness from the new variant.”
Dr. Peterson said that “if you’re boosted, the chance of you getting Omicron goes way, way down.” He also recommended getting a flu shot, washing regular hand washing and wearing a mask in public places.
In Alaska, there have been 154,369 cases and 947 deaths of residents. Currently, there are 57 patients in the hospital with COVID and six are on ventilators.
In Nome and the region there have been 2,268 cases, 21 hospitalizations and three deaths.