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COVID cases rise on the peninsula, but fewer patients experience severe illness

The Kenai Peninsula Borough recently moved into a higher alert status for COVID-19 cases. But medical professionals say patients aren't getting as sick as they were earlier in the pandemic.
Sabine Poux
Hospital spokesperson Bruce Richards said many patients hospitalized with COVID aren’t even there for COVID-related reasons — they’re in the hospital for other medical issues and then test positive once they’re admitted.

The Kenai Peninsula is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases that has bumped it into the CDC’s highest COVID community level.

Medical professionals on the central peninsula say they’ve seen more cases in recent weeks, likely a result of more Alaskans traveling Outside and tourists coming in.

But those cases aren’t landing as many people in hospital beds or ambulances as they were during earlier surges.

Central Peninsula Hospital spokesperson Bruce Richards said that the hospital saw an uptick in cases a week and a half ago.

“We’ve definitely had a recent uptick in Covid cases, and we’re seeing a few more at the hospital,” he said.

That spike tracks with an increase in cases in the borough and state-wide.

According to the CDC, there have been more than 250 new reported cases in the Kenai Peninsula Borough over the last week — a 22% increase over the last seven days. Alaska on the whole has one of the worst COVID-19 case rates of any state in the country, alongside Hawaii.

Officials say many cases currently go uncounted as at-home tests become more popular and local public testing sites close. As a result, official counts have become less reliable. Some scientists even estimate that this may be the second worst wave of the pandemic.

But Richards said there’s a silver lining — even though the area is seeing plenty of cases, people just aren’t getting as sick.

“It’s not been like it was back when we had the other variants where people were much more ill, when they had more severe symptoms and needed hospitalization; it’s way different than that,” he said.

These days, Richards said, many patients hospitalized with COVID aren’t even there for COVID-related reasons — they’re in the hospital for other medical issues and then test positive once they’re admitted. Richards recalls a time when the hospital was overloaded with COVID patients, as a result of earlier, more severe variants of the virus.

Richards said, “Those were pretty difficult for the hospital because we got up to the point where in some point in time we had over 20 inpatients as a result of COVID, and we’re nowhere near that anymore.”

In Nikiski, Senior Emergency Medical Services Captain Harrison Deveer has had a similar experience. He said although the new strands of the virus are very contagious, most people’s symptoms are similar to those of a common cold. During previous variants, he said, the biggest problem wasn’t the rate of infection, it was how sick people were getting.

Now, a lot of those fears have subsided — and so have the 911 calls.

“Before we were doing a lot of COVID calls, but now, I don’t even remember a time we had a patient whose main problem for calling 911 was COVID-related,” Deveer said.

The biggest COVID-related issue facing Nikiski EMS right now? A high demand for monoclonal antibodies, a therapeutic treatment that makes COVID symptoms milder and can keep people out of the hospital.

Nikiski EMS has a grant from the state to offer in-home COVID therapies like monoclonal antibodies, but it’s run out of supplies. Deveer said he’s turned down three requests for antibodies in the last week while he waits to hear back from the state about getting more.

He said in Nikiski, people are generally going about their lives as normal. The less severe symptoms associated with COVID right now make him hopeful about the future.

“We’re not actually seeing that in the field as sick patients,” Deveer said. “So that certainly gives me hope that somehow we’ll get to the end of this.”

Richards acknowledges that at this point in the pandemic, fatigue around the precautions and restrictions related to COVID safety is widespread, and people just don’t want to hear about the pandemic anymore.

“Yes, if you want it to be as safe as you possibly can, you’re going to want to avoid large indoor crowds, you’re going to socially distance, you’re going to wear a mask when you go places. But how many people are going to do that? I don’t know,” he said.

According to the CDC, individuals in counties experiencing a high COVID-19 community level, like the Kenai Peninsula Borough, should wear a mask indoors and get tested if they have any symptoms.

From a local public health standpoint, the advice remains the same: get vaccinated and stay home if you’re sick. Kenai Public Health still offers free at-home COVID tests and masks at its center on Barnacle Way.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.