Two new COVID cases detected in region
Norton Sound Health Corporation identified two new cases of COVID-19 this week after a string of days without any active cases in the entire region. As of Tuesday, those two cases were the only active cases in the region.
One case was identified on Monday, February 22 in Nome. The patient was a resident of Nome and an NSHC employee who had not recently travelled and tested positive during routine employee screening.
Then on Tuesday, a resident of Golovin tested positive. The patient is isolating, and NSHC has met with Golovin leadership to notify close contacts and the greater community.
The sources of both cases are unknown, and have been deemed community spread, meaning that other unidentified cases may be still be active in the community.
In a regular conference call, NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson added that it’s also possible that the patient had been infected with COVID in the past without realizing it and then tested positive after the infection passed. Those who have had COVID in the last few months have a small chance of testing positive even after they’ve recovered, because fragments of viral particles can remain in their system.
Still, Dr. Peterson said the case is a reminder to stay vigilant about mask wearing and social distancing even as case numbers fall.
Vaccination efforts in the region continue, with 7,482 total doses given as of Monday. Of those, 4,118 were first doses, meaning that more than 40 percent of regional residents have opted to receive at least one shot. Vaccination rates vary between communities, with White Mountain and Wales topping the list with 89 percent and 77 percent of residents, respectively, receiving at least one dose.
Most villages reached about 50 to 60 percent vaccination, while some still lag behind under 20 percent. In Nome, 3,470 total doses had been given as of Monday, 1,866 of which were first doses, meaning around half of the entire community has been vaccinated. Health officials estimate that the country will need to reach around 80 percent vaccination to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. This goal is complicated by the fact that vaccines are not currently available to children, who make up a large segment of the population. Dr. Peterson estimated that about 65 percent of Nome – that is, excluding children who are ineligible for the vaccine – have gotten at least one shot.
In comparison, about 19 percent of Alaskans have received at least one dose, Dr. Peterson said. Johns Hopkins University reports that nationwide, only about six percent of Americans have been vaccinated.
New data released by the United Kingdom’s public health authority shows that even just one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides high levels of protection, around 70 percent. In Israel, where around half the entire population has already been vaccinated, the vaccine was found to be 85 percent effective after just the first shot.
While not the 95 percent from two doses reported in clinical trials, 70 to 85 percent is still considered highly effective. The new data should encourage people to sign up to receive the vaccine even if they’re not sure whether they’ll be available to get the second dose, Dr. Peterson said.
Pfizer and BioNTech have also announced that they believe their vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures for up to two weeks and remain effective, significantly longer than the five days they originally recommended. While the Food and Drug Administration has yet to officially endorse the recommendation, Dr. Peterson said it could make a big difference in the region. With the two-week grace period, NSHC could send vials of vaccine for village clinics to hold on to and then find recipients after, instead of having to line up recipients before the doses leave Nome.
He added that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also likely to be approved by the FDA for emergency use by the end of the month. The vaccine is single-dose and was designed using more traditional methods instead of mRNA, and its approval would not only increase the number of doses available nationwide but also offer an option for people still wary of mRNA technology, Dr. Peterson said. It may also be approved for everyone age 12 and up, providing a vaccine option for more of the region’s youth. Peterson said he was “anxiously awaiting” the FDA’s announcement.
On Monday, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy went into self-quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID on Saturday. A press release from his office stated that he was not showing symptoms and would continue to carry out his duties remotely while he quarantined for at least seven days.
As of Tuesday, Alaska had reported 55,560 total cases statewide, 1,222 hospitalizations and 287 deaths.
In the Bering Strait / Norton Sound region, there have been 318 total cases, six hospitalizations and no deaths.
Nationwide, the death toll has reached 500,000. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation that flags should be flown at half-staff until sunset February 26, 2021 in remembrance of the 500,000 Americans lost to COVID-19.