Alaskans hit record numbers of COVID-19 as scarcity of some treatments prioritizes those most at risk
Alaska is so short on supplies of some of its COVID-19 treatments that only those most at risk have access to them — all while unprecedented numbers of Alaskans are testing positive during the current Omicron wave.
On Friday, the state reported 5,508 new cases of infection among residents and non-residents over the past two days. That splits into 2,598 cases on Wednesday and 2,910 cases on Thursday, again the broken records reported earlier this week.
The number of hospitalized patients due to the virus rose slightly to 87, compared to 80 as of Wednesday. While this is a fraction of the record hospital admissions reported last fall, this week hospital administrators say facilities are once again feeling stressed by the high number of patients and understaffing.
[Alaska shatters COVID-19 case record as omicron adds to growing strain on hospitals]
In Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, the rate of cases has doubled since last week, and municipal residents made up more than half of the new cases reported by the state health department. The Anchorage School District reported 1,171 currently active cases as of Friday afternoon among more than 49,000 students and staff, although the district’s dashboard does not include every case tracked by the state.
Alaska reported two additional deaths linked to the virus on Friday, which included two Anchorage residents in their 60s. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 955 Alaskans and 32 non-residents in the state have died from the virus.
September and October 2021 were the deadliest months for the epidemic to date. While the number of recent cases has outpaced previous records, officials say there is some indication that Omicron’s surge may not be as severe as a delta wave in terms of hospitalizations or deaths.
However, the omicron variant brings with it new challenges.
Monoclonal antibody therapies It was important in treating COVID-19 patients early on, especially those at risk of serious disease, such as immunocompromised people. But two of the three types of monoclonal antibody treatments available are not effective against omicron, putting pressure on providing effective treatments.
Meanwhile, the new oral antiviral treatment is also rare, albeit for various reasons, according to state pharmacist Coleman Cochins. He said the oral medication has only recently been authorized as a treatment for COVID-19 and no significant amount has yet been manufactured.
The novelty of the drug and the high demand for it amid the increasing number of cases led to the scarcity of the drug. But that likely won’t be the case for long: Oral drug production is easier to ramp up than monoclonal antibodies, which have to be refrigerated when shipped and take longer to produce, Cochins said.
The paucity of some treatments has prompted the Alaska Crisis Care Commission to recommend that curative treatment providers prioritize people with certain medical conditions in tiers, with those most at risk of severe disease from COVID-19 at the top.
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ann Zinke, said this week that there is likely to be only enough of both monoclonal antibodies and new oral antiviral treatments for first-degree people.
This group includes those whose immune systems do not respond adequately to the vaccine or to previous infections due to underlying conditions, as well as people who have not currently received a vaccine and are 75 years of age or older, 65 years of age or older who have risk factors or are pregnant as recommended.
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Shipments of monoclonal antibodies arrive in one-week cycles, enough to supply 13 treatment sites with six doses each, for a total of 78 doses, Cochins said. Most states get small allocations, because therapies are difficult to manufacture and take some time to ramp up production.
He said the situation around treatment isn’t entirely negative: It’s possible that most vaccinated and boosted people don’t need monoclonal antibodies, plus there are two oral medications that work against COVID-19 as well, including the omicron variant, although That data is limited, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Oral drugs are really game-changing,” he said.
The injection of antibodies, which requires an intravenous and a sterile environment, is much less convenient compared to the ease of taking the drug orally. But oral medications are still scarce for now, although Cutchins said he expects to see more of them quickly, even in the next two weeks and even more in one month from mid-January.
“As orals become more and more available, we actually have a much lower need for monoclonal drugs,” he said.
Jill Green, director of operations at a state-contracted monoclonal processing facility in Anchorage, described the supply shortage Thursday morning as a “very difficult situation.”
It started the day after Christmas, when by 4 p.m. her phone’s voicemail filled up, they were returning nearly 50 pumps every day, six days a week. By Thursday, Green only had 24 doses, with six already counted and only a light shipment expected for the following week.
“It was a big ship turning around — people are used to having that safety net, something that will help them get better, more quickly,” Green said.
As the treatment center applied crisis standards around prioritizing, Green said she’s had hundreds of conversations with people she told them she couldn’t give them treatment.
“If we had it, we’d gladly give it to you,” Green said. “We’re not trying to be rude, we’d like to help everyone, but we still have to protect that most vulnerable group right now.”
So far, Green said, the facility has not had to turn away anyone from the most vulnerable group yet.
Annie Berman, Daily News reporter contributed to this article.