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COVID drove up excess deaths in 2020 and 2021

Credit KBBI

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a dramatic increase in excess deaths in Alaska in 2020 and 2021.

That’s according to a recent report from the state’s Department of Health and Social Services. The report measured the deaths Alaska saw in those years against the deaths the department would have expected to see based on historical trends. And it shows COVID-19 played a big role in driving those deaths up.

The department reports 500 more deaths than expected in 2020, as well as over 1,400 more than expected in 2021.

Almost half of those total deaths (973), the report said , were caused by COVID-19.

And that number spikes to 57 percent of the total when accounting for deaths for which the virus was a contributing factor (1,097 deaths).

The peak of those excess deaths last year was in October — tracking with the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Rosa Avila, one of the authors on the report, said the department didn’t monitor excess death rates before COVID-19.

“And then once the CDC started putting out weekly excess deaths on their website, we reallocated resources to other data needs that also needed to be addressed, because we had limited capacity," Avila said. "But there have been questions still about excess deaths for the pandemic, which is the reason why we conducted this analysis.”

The Gulf Coast region, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, did not see an excess of deaths in 2020, as reported by the state. But it did see an excess of 161 deaths in 2021 from 617 expected to 778 observed.

That was one of the higher excess death rates in the state, second only to the Mat-Su.

The report also said the pandemic had secondary effects that could’ve compounded the overall excess death numbers — including strains on the medical system that could impact Alaskans who needed care for other reasons. Alaska’s largest hospital, Providence Medical Center, had to ration medical care last fall as it became overwhelmed by cases.

Avila said understanding those effects is important, too.

“It’s kind of hard to figure out what the burden of the pandemic was, because it didn’t just impact people that got COVID. There were also economic strains, there were strains to the healthcare system," Avila said. "And a lot of those systematic changes could also impact mortality in general.”

Excess death rates across Alaska were not distributed equally across demographics.

In 2020, American Indian and Alaska Native people had the highest excess death rate by race. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found American Indian and Alaska Native people experienced disproportionately high rates of COVID illness, hospitalization and death compared with white Alaskans.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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