Health officials with the Department of Health and Social Services said during a press briefing Thursday that while they don’t have a crystal ball to predict the outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually it will subside.
“Yes, this pandemic will end,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said. “At some point, we will go from a pandemic into an endemic phase of this virus.”
As more time passes, more treatments and preventative measures come to the market, officials said.
“Hopefully, as we build up protective immunity, as a human population, the disease severity will, over time, become milder as it has for influenza,” McLaughlin said. “Take a look at the 1918-1919 great influenza pandemic that caused tremendous life loss and morbidity — over time, that particular strain of the virus has become more benign and less capable of causing severe disease.”
Part of the immunity process, officials said, is vaccination. They especially emphasized the importance of getting a booster dose as the omicron strain, one of the newest variants of concern, has begun to spread across the country.
According to data from the New York Times on Thursday, the omicron variant has already been detected in more than 80 countries worldwide, and 38 states in the country — including Alaska.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during the press briefing that just one omicron case had been sequenced in the state so far — reported on Monday in an Anchorage resident who had traveled internationally in November.
Zink said it’s probable that there is more omicron circulating than has been reported so far, however.
“This is a highly transmissible version,” she said. “It’s spreading rapidly around the world. We suspect there are more cases; it’s just all that we have identified.”
In the Northeastern United States, omicron cases are making up about 13% of all newly sequenced COVID cases, Zink said.
“(The) New York, New Jersey region(s) have identified omicron as their variants,” she said. “(We’re) really starting to see an uptick of people on the East Coast quickly.”
Officials said that although preliminary studies show the omicron variant may be even more transmissible than the delta strain, current data also suggests omicron may cause milder illness.
“As an individual myself, I want a more mild disease because I don’t want to get sick,” Zink said. “But if I’m thinking about the health care capacity and the state as a whole, a highly transmissible virus actually provides more aches.”
She used an analogy of a traffic accident: If a bus gets into a wreck and multiple passengers come into the hospital with mild injuries, the staff still has to treat them all at once. And if some have more serious injuries, Zink said, it gets more complicated.
“The resources are really different, so from a health care standpoint, if we have a whole bunch of people who at once have even mild disease … that can very quickly overwhelm our hospital system,” she said.
Health officials still widely agree that primary series vaccination plus booster doses are the best protection the public has against COVID, even with the uncertainties of the omicron variant.
McLaughlin cited a preprint study out of the United Kingdom that found that vaccine effectiveness wanes more quickly against omicron than it has against delta — down to about 40% for omicron compared to around 80% for delta.
But, he said, booster shots are showing encouraging data even against the omicron variant.
“Two weeks after the booster dose, even with omicron, you’re approaching 80% vaccine effectiveness,” McLaughlin said. “So (I) really want to underscore the importance of getting vaccinated and getting your booster dose.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for anyone 18 and older.
The Pfizer booster vaccine was recently approved for 16- and 17-year-olds. Pfizer boosters are now recommended for anyone 16 and older and six months out from their second dose.
Moderna boosters are also recommended for anyone 18 and older and six months out from their second dose.
The J&J vaccine booster is recommended for people 18 and older and two months after the primary dose, although the Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it was revising its fact sheet for the J&J shot to include more data on the risks of blood clotting associated with the vaccine.
Zink said Thursday it’s imperative that Alaskans do all they can to not only protect themselves, but their loved ones and their communities.
“By delaying one’s exposure to the disease, there are just more options for treatment and options to protecting yourself as well as others,” she said.
Even six months ago, Zink said, Alaskans didn’t have all the same approved preventative tools or treatments that they do now. Even though the virus may be around for a long time, or even forever, she said the DHSS team is doing its best to promote the health and well-being of every Alaskan.
“I get asked a lot, ‘When are you going to stop talking about COVID? When’s it all going to go away?’” Zink said. “You never want your doctor to give up on you and you don’t want your public health team to give up on you. And that’s why we continue to share information and resources, so people are informed about these things. But that doesn’t mean that it needs to change or dominate your life. And we have a lot of tools to keep yourself, your family and your loved ones helping you moving forward.”
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
Many organizations on the central peninsula, including Walmart, Walgreens, the Kenai Fire Department and Kenai Public Health, offer vaccines. They are also available for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Additionally, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy hosts a walk-in clinic in its strip mall storefront at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways. The clinic has extended its hours to Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Vaccination appointments can also be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.
A map of vaccine providers can be found on DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.
People who would like assistance with scheduling a vaccination appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. The central peninsula call center can be reached at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center can be reached at 907-235-4636. The Seward call center can be reached at 907-224-4636.
COVID testing locations
Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.
In Kenai, testing is available at the Chignik Lagoon Clinic, Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center and Capstone Clinic.
In Soldotna, testing is available at the Peninsula Community Health Center, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Walgreens and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.
In Seward, testing is available at Providence Medical Center, Chugachmiut-North Star Health Clinic, Glacier Family Medicine, Seward Community Health Center and the Safeway pharmacy. The Seward Community Health Center at 417 First Avenue is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays only. Bring a face covering and photo ID.
In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at email@example.com.
A graph shows preliminary data on the transmissibility of the omicron COVID-19 variant from a press briefing by the Alaska State Department of Public Health on Dec. 16, 2021. (Courtesy DHSS)