Officials again urge vaccinations as COVID cases rise

Delta variant spread has officials concerned

State health officials are again urging Alaskan who haven’t to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccines are widely available in Alaska, as seen in this Aug. 5 photo, showing a sign advertising free shots. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

State health officials are again urging Alaskans to take increased precautions against the spread of COVID-19, mainly getting vaccinated, to combat the recent spike of cases statewide driven by the delta variant.

The rise in cases has led some municipalities such as Juneau to re-enact health mitigation mandates like masking and state officials to issue statements urging residents to get vaccinated. On Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink issued a joint statement emphasizing the vaccine’s safety and said inoculations are important for resuming in-person learning in the state’s schools.

In the statement, Dunleavy said the state had weathered the effects of the virus better than almost anywhere in the country thanks to Alaskans making good choices and looking out for one another.

“Now, thanks to the efforts of President Trump and Operation Warp Speed, there is a safe, free, and widely available tool to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. That tool is the vaccine,” Dunleavy said.

The statement came just a week after the governor issued a statement urging Alaskans to make safe choices to avoid placing an unnecessary burden on health care facilities. Hospital leaders last week held a news conference to emphasize the gravity of the situation, with Alaska Hospital and Nursing Home Association President Jared Kosin saying the number of coronavirus cases was affecting hospitals’ abilities to provide services.

Dunleavy said in his statements vaccines are a personal choice, and urged Alaskans to consult their medical providers.

Health officials have attributed the increase in cases to the delta variant of the virus. The variant is present in communities across the state, including Juneau. The delta variant is so far the most contagious strain of COVID-1,9 and health officials say unvaccinated individuals are more likely to contract and transmit the virus.

In a meeting with media Thursday, state health officials said the current rise in cases is different from previous increases because conditions are different.

“We have higher rates of vaccination in our community,” said Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, with the Department of Health and Social Services Department of Public Health. “Vaccinated individuals have lower rates of severe disease.”

Health officials are also concerned about additional strains of the virus that may appear. Viruses mutate every time they replicate, Zink said, and with billions of people in the world, COVID-19 has billions of chances to do that.

[Officials encourage vaccination as hospitals in state near capacity]

Federal regulators haven’t yet recommended booster shots of the vaccine, according to Matthew Bobo, the state’s immunization program manager.

State data shows Juneau’s average daily case rate spiking in mid-July followed by a sharp decline at the end of the month. The City and Borough of Juneau raised its community alert level to “Level 3-High” on July 30, which returned the city’s mask mandate, but Zink said it’s difficult to attribute the decline to any one factor.

“What is causative can be a challenging space,” Zink said. “The line between mandate to personal action is not always clear. That is always going to be a choice governments make on how to manage that.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said that masking works to deter the spread of the virus and more people masking in a community decreases the chance of the virus spreading.

On Thursday, CBJ reported 11 new residents tested positive for COVID-19. Five of the cases were attributed by Public Health to secondary spread, one to community spread and five cases remain under investigation, according to the city. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 382 new cases statewide and five deaths.

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said he is cautiously optimistic Juneau’s decline would continue but said it was premature to assume it would. The delta variant was causing the city concern, he said, though vaccinated individuals are far more likely to experience a more moderate form of the disease.

Barr said the city has a high vaccination rate and that number is growing. City officials are trying to put out as much information as they can to try and increase vaccine confidence and answers a lot of questions on social media. Barr said the city is encouraging people to speak to their family members who may be hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“One of the things we know, people trust people who they are close to, they trust their own medical providers,” Barr said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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