Over a month after Alaska’s daily coronavirus case tallies surged to record highs, the state on Wednesday reported 24 COVID-19 deaths — the most announced in a single day — that health officials say occurred over several months.
While state health officials on Wednesday could not confirm exactly when the deaths occurred, reviewing death certificates to confirm cause of death is a lengthy process that involves at least a monthlong delay between when a death occurs and when it’s reported by the state.
It takes about nine days for a death to be registered by the state, and another one to three weeks for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to code and classify those deaths. CDC specialists rely on “cause of death” noted by a medical professional to certify each death.
This reporting process has been in place for decades and is considered the most accurate way COVID-19 deaths are tracked, health officials said.
The one recent death reported Wednesday involved a woman from North Pole who was in her 70s.
The 23 deaths identified during the certificate review involved a North Pole man in his 80s; two women from the Bethel Census Area in their 70s; two Wasilla men in their 60s; a Wasilla man in his 40s; a Palmer woman in her 80s; a Palmer man in his 60s; an Eagle River man in his 60s; three Anchorage men in their 80s; two Anchorage men in their 70s; three Anchorage women in their 70s; an Anchorage woman in her 60s; a Kenai man in his 70s; a Homer woman in her 60s; a Kodiak man in his 70s; a Kodiak woman in her 60s; and a woman from a small community in the Kodiak Island Borough who was in her 60s.
In total, 251 Alaskans and two nonresidents in the state with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic reached the state in March.
Alaska’s death rate per capita remains among the lowest in the country, though the state’s size and vulnerable health care system complicate national comparisons.
Previously, the record for most mortalities reported in a single day occurred on Dec. 12, when 18 deaths were recorded, including five that had occurred recently.
The state health department also said that one resident death was removed from the state count following a final review of the death certificate, and one other resident death was reclassified as a nonresident death.
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, encouraged Alaskans not to let their guard down, noting the rising death toll in Alaska and nationwide.
“We’re reaching this milestone in our country with over 400,000 deaths,” she said during a public call Wednesday. “And it’s just a reminder that while we can see the trail out of the forest … we’re not there yet.”
The state also reported 167 new infections Wednesday, continuing a trend of steeply declining infection numbers and hospitalizations over the past month.
As of Wednesday, there were 55 people with COVID-19 in hospitals throughout the state and another two patients suspected to have the virus. Hospitalizations are now less than half of what they were during the peak in November and December.
Vaccines first arrived in the state in December, and by Wednesday at least 59,392 people had received the first dose, according to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard. More than 13,000 people had received the second dose.
According to a national tracker, by Wednesday Alaska had vaccinated a higher percent of its total population than any other state.
Health care workers and nursing home staff and residents were the first group to receive the vaccinations. Early this month, the state opened up the vaccines to adults older than 65, although appointment slots are limited and have filled quickly, and the overall vaccine rollout has been slower than officials had originally hoped.
The state does not yet know how many doses of vaccine it will be receiving in February, but the priority continues to be vaccinating adults 65 and older, who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death from the virus, state health officials said Wednesday.
For more information about vaccination appointments, visit covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322 and leave a message. A recording says calls will be returned in the order they’re received within 48 hours, but some users have reported longer delays.
Of the 157 cases reported in Alaska residents, there were 49 in Anchorage plus six in Eagle River; three in Homer; two in Kenai; four in Soldotna; three in Kodiak; one in Cordova; 20 in Fairbanks; six in North Pole; one in Big Lake; eight in Palmer; one in Sutton-Alpine; 22 in Wasilla; one in Willow; two in Juneau; one in Unalaska; one in Bethel; and one in Dillingham.
Among communities with populations under 1,000 people not named to protect privacy, there was one in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough; one in the Fairbanks North Star Borough; three in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; one in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; three in the North Slope Borough; four in the Bethel Census Area; one in the Dillingham Census Area; and 11 in the Kusilvak Census Area.
Ten nonresidents tested positive for the virus, including two in Anchorage, one in Seward, one in Wasilla, one in Unalaska, and five in an unidentified region of the state.
As of Tuesday, there were 58 people with COVID-19 in hospitals throughout the state and another three patients suspected to have the virus. Hospitalizations are now less than half of where they were during the peak in November and December.
While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the state health department represents only one person.
The state’s data doesn’t specify whether people testing positive for COVID-19 have symptoms. More than half of the nation’s infections are transmitted from asymptomatic people, according to CDC estimates.
Across the state, 3.77% of COVID-19 tests conducted over the past two weeks have come back positive.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the state reported 24 virus-related deaths Wednesday but removed an earlier resident death after a death certificate review and reclassified a previous resident death as a nonresident death.]