Alaska may have already hit its daily peak of omicron infections, according to new projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, but deaths and hospitalizations are expected to continue rising over the next several weeks.
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According to IHME projections, roughly 21,000 Alaskans were estimated to have a COVID-19 infection last week, which is projected to be in decline, and continue declining through winter.
While this is welcome news, hospital use is expected to peak in the coming weeks at rates far higher than any seen so far in the pandemic. The projections expect more than 330 beds, and more than 70 ICU beds, will be used to treat COVID patients by the end of January, before dropping off over the coming weeks.
While there are many more people in hospitals with COVID, the IHME states that it’s likely that a substantial portion of these patients are incidental cases, meaning they were in the hospital for a non-COVID issue, and tested positive. At the same time, hospitals remain strained due to employees testing positive and being required to quarantine for five days.
However, good news comes by way of death projections, which remain far lower for the omicron wave than rates seen in delta. It’s anticipated that this peak will remain below peaks even seen last winter, though far higher than experienced in the 2021 summer months.
Nationally, there are signs that omicron is following trajectories seen in other countries, marked by a rapid swell of cases and an equally fast decline. Across the country, omicron accounts for nearly all COVID infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and it’s likely that the strain is dominant in Anchorage/MatSu as well, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The department wrote that they assume omicron is dominant in the region, while a mix of delta and omicron continue to circulate in other regions of the state.
In the IHME’s policy brief, it states that transmission of the omicron variant cannot be controlled due to its high rates of transmission. In its models, neither testing strategies or increased mask use could curtail the rapid omicron wave. The main focus, it wrote, should be on supporting hospitals, schools, and other businesses to avoid major disruption.
Amid the omicron wave, the Biden administration announced on Jan. 10 that they would require health insurers to cover the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID tests beginning Jan. 15. Insurers are required to cover eight free tests per-person, per-month. The U.S. Postal Service is also offering four free COVID tests per household, which are available for order here.
The IHME states it expects omicron to continue circulating and potentially return later in the year as immunity wanes. New variants are also expected to emerge in 2022 that will continue to pose a recurring health problem.
“The notion of a pandemic requiring extraordinary intervention and behavioral change is likely over by early March,” the policy brief states. “Strategies to manage COVID-19 as an endemic disease in the future should include active surveillance, scaled up production and access to effective antivirals, and mask use by the vulnerable if and when another wave occurs.”
At the same time, vaccines still provide powerful protection against severe disease in the vaccinated.