DHSS Press Release: Testing and lab sequencing detects first case of variant SARS-CoV-2 strain in Alaska

January 26, 2021 ANCHORAGE – The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) announced today that an Anchorage resident who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection last month was infected with a variant strain of the virus known as B.1.1.7, which was originally detected in September in the United Kingdom. This is the first identification in Alaska of the B.1.1.7 strain, or any of the variant strains that are raising concerns among public health officials.

“Viruses constantly change through mutation so it’s not unexpected to find variants of the virus,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “However, B.1.1.7 is one of several SARS-CoV-2 variants that has been carefully tracked because it appears to spread more easily and quickly than other strains of the virus.”

As of Jan. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counted 293 cases of B.1.1.7 in 24 states, according to a CDC webpage that keeps track of COVID-19 variant cases in the United States. 

“We’re not surprised this variant has been detected in Alaska,” said Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “We’ve been sequencing the viral genome from a subset of positive test samples to detect the presence of variants as quickly as possible.”

Alaska’s Public Health Laboratories have been sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome from positive cases around the state since March 2020 to monitor circulating strains in Alaska. When significant variants began to be detected globally this past fall, the state labs directed those sequencing efforts to look for the presence of these variants in Alaska. To date, roughly 4-5% of all positive COVID-19 cases have been sequenced. This is four times higher than the national average for COVID-19 sequencing and on par with efforts in the United Kingdom.

The person who tested positive in Anchorage had recently visited a state where the variant has already been detected. After returning home, the person first experienced symptoms on Dec. 17, was swabbed on Dec. 20, and received a result on Dec. 22. The individual isolated after being notified of the positive result, according to contact tracers. The individual lived with one other person who also became sick, tested positive and was successfully isolated. Both individuals have since recovered.

“The two patients remained in isolation and stated that they did not have contact with others,” Dr. Zink added. “We are hopeful that transmission of this particular variant stopped with these two individuals, but we will very likely detect the variant strain again soon.”

The CDC has warned that this variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by late spring and has the potential to drive further increases in infections in coming months.

The variant sample was first screened by the Alaska State Virology Laboratory in Fairbanks on the same day of test collection, Dec. 20, and was found to be missing the spike gene, indicating it was a possible variant. The sample was part of a group of over 300 specimens with spike gene target failures that have been sequenced over the past three weeks to examine viral genomes for variants, a process that normally takes about a week to analyze roughly 100 genomes. The lab’s initial analysis determined the sample was the B.1.1.7 variant. This finding was then confirmed by a University of Alaska Fairbanks laboratory. DHSS notified the CDC Monday that the variant had been found in Alaska, albeit an imported case.

“Sequencing is an important tool to keep track of coronavirus variants circulating in Alaska,” said chief of the Alaska Public Health Laboratories Dr. Jayme Parker. “We’ve been keeping up this effort since last spring and are grateful to have strong collaborations with our universities to gain even more sequencing capacity at this time.”

To help prevent further spread of the COVID-19 virus, including variant strains, Alaskans should be vigilant about prevention efforts to stop the spread of the disease.  

  • Maintain six feet of physical distance from others outside your household.
  • Wear a face covering around others.
  • Wash your hands often and clean frequently touched surfaces.
  • Avoid gatherings and keep your social circles small.
  • If you start to have symptoms — even mild ones — isolate yourself from others and consult with a health care provider to decide whether to get tested.
  • If you get a call from public health, answer it, and take their advice on how to protect yourself and those around you.

To learn more about variants and the effort to search for them within Alaska, visit the DHSS COVID-19 variants webpage. Visit muni.org/COVID-19 for more information on COVID-19 in Anchorage and for more information about other states and nationally, visit the CDC webpage on variants.

Stay informed about COVID-19

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Testing Requirement for International Travelers

As of January 26, the CDC requires all international travelers – including U.S. citizens – to provide negative COVID-19 test results or evidence of COVID-19 recovery to their airline before boarding a flight to the United States.

NOTE: While an antigen test will meet the CDC requirements and allow travelers to board their flight to the U.S., the State of Alaska only accepts molecular-based SARS-CoV-2 COVID-19 test results.

Nonresidents who arrive without evidence of an approved COVID-19 test will be required to test at the airport upon arrival for a fee of $250 (not reimbursable by most insurance). Alaska residents may test for free upon arrival or forgo testing by self-quarantining for 14 days.

Help spread the word by telling your foreign clients, friends, and family that Alaska’s COVID-19 travel testing requirements are stricter than the CDC’s national requirement for international travelers.

Review the new CDC rules online, at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/testing-international-air-travelers.html?fbclid=IwAR1wvLJSe1uZaHnRjQbGRCR2x4UDf93wZqrU-1pjQvQUIFRl_9CojC14BqE

Learn more about Alaska’s COVID-19 travel regulations by visiting: https://covid19.alaska.gov/travelers/

Don’t leave home without your mask!

An important reminder from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services!

Please keep wearing your mask when you are out in public and make sure it fits well and covers your nose and mouth.

Many people are wondering whether wearing a mask, keeping distance from others and frequent hand washing are still necessary after you’ve received both doses of COVID-19 vaccine The answer is YES. It’s extremely important for all of us, even those who have been vaccinated, to continue with the usual pandemic precautions, at least for a while.

Here are three reasons: 1) The vaccine is very good at protecting from you from getting sick (95% efficacy in clinical trails) but does not guarantee complete immunity. 2) More research is needed before we know if those who are vaccinated are less likely to infect others. It’s possible you could still transmit the virus even after you’ve had two doses of vaccine. 3) It will take time before enough people are protected against the virus to achieve herd immunity. COVID-19 variants are on the rise in some countries and U.S. states, which makes masking and other COVID-19 prevention measures even more important.

Learn more: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/coveryourface.aspx?fbclid=IwAR20H0hfUPvVJ77fmwGlDSD28svb6K8_tl3WgoAhPWbIDKsBS11tSV8wvqs

Sitka’s COVID-19 Alert Level Shifts from High to Moderate

Congratulations, Sitka! Our COVID-19 Alert Level has shifted from High to Moderate! Keep up the great work!

January 25, 2021

The following mitigation guidance is recommended:

•Masks/face coverings encouraged when: indoor public spaces and 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained from others
•Masks/face coverings encouraged when: outdoors and 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained from others
•Maintain physical distancing of 6 feet
•Outdoor events are encouraged; gatherings of more than 100 people indoors is not recommended
•Restaurants: indoor capacity reduced to maintain 6 feet of distance, delivery or carryout preferred, employees encouraged to mask
•Bars: indoor capacity reduced to 50%, encourage outdoor serving, employees encouraged to mask

Visit the CBS COVID-19 Dashboard for the most current Sitka data. https://cityofsitka.org/

Sitka Unified Command Encourages Vaccine Registration

Sitka Unified Command encourages citizens to enroll for a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently there are two options for vaccine registration in Sitka.

The State of Alaska, in collaboration with Harry Race Pharmacy, is distributing vaccines based on CDC and State guidelines. Registration is now open for healthcare workers and individuals age 65+. To schedule an appointment, call 1-907-646-3322 or visit: https://outlook.office365.com/owa/calendar/HarryRacePharmacy1@whitesalaska.com/bookings/

A vaccine is also available through SEARHC. Registration is available to all residents at https://covid19.searhc.org/. The SEARHC COVID-19 sequencing follows guidelines from the CDC and State of Alaska. As sequencing groups open, eligible individuals will receive an email from SEARHC to schedule a vaccine appointment.

Currently, SEARHC is scheduling those age 65 and older, all medically vulnerable individuals aged 16-64, and all essential workers. New clinics will be added as vaccine supply arrives.

Please assist your Elders and family members with online vaccine registration. In time, everyone who would like to get vaccinated will be able to.

Join the COVID Conscious Business Program!

Sitka’s COVID Conscious Business Program is intended to recognize those businesses and organizations who have taken great efforts to make their establishments accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participation in the program is open to all businesses and organizations in Sitka, and is voluntary. To learn more visit: https://cityofsitka.org/sitka-covid-conscious-business-program/

January 20 News Release: Unified Command’s Weekly Meeting


SITKA, January 20, 2020  – Incident Commander, John Leach reported vaccine distribution is continuing to increase with the number of people being vaccinated in Sitka. The number of case counts in Sitka continues to rise and fall with the Wastewater Report mirroring that same trend. To stay informed visit our COVID-19 Dashboard at https://cityofsitka.org/.

Jay Sweeney, Finance Section Chief reported that there have been 5 projects established under our request for public assistance from FEMA. March and April have been paid out; the May request has been sent but yet to receive payment; June is waiting on the environmental and historic preservation review before it is ready for payment request; July is uploaded and waiting on its final FEMA review, which is one step after the environmental and historic preservation review; August is uploaded and waiting on the initial review and staff is currently getting the September project ready for submittal to the State of Alaska before uploading for its review.

Public Health Nurse, Denise Ewing stated that we are still at high alert and reviewed the local case counts for Sitka. Ewing has been working with itinerant communities for vaccine distribution clinics to be held in the month of February and the first week of March in Port Alexander, Point Baker and Port Protection.

Harry Race Pharmacist, Trish White said this morning, January 20, they had a successful vaccination clinic and inoculated 56 people. In total, Harry Race & White’s Pharmacy has completed 107 Pfizer vaccinations and after this Friday, January 22, they will have vaccinated an additional 320 individuals with their 1st dose of Moderna. Registration is now taking place for Phase 1a Tier 3 which includes 65+, eligible healthcare workers and long-term care residents and staff. To register go to Harry Race COVID Vaccination Tier3 Bookings.

Rob Caldwell with Sitka Tribe of Alaska thanked Dr. Bruhl and SEARHC for the Lunch and Learn discussion on the COVID-19 vaccine held last Friday.  The recorded discussion is available for viewing at https://www.facebook.com/sitkatribe.

Janelle Vanasse, Superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School reported the bulk of kids have returned to town. Their plan has been going as expected and they have been able to isolate or quarantine any students who required it.  Most students will return to in-person school on campus tomorrow, January 21.

Maegan Bosak, SEARHC Liaison shared that SEARHC, in Sitka, has given 1,550 first doses of vaccine and 430 individuals a second dose. SEARHC has moved into Group 4 and is currently taking appointments for those 65 and older, all medically vulnerable individuals aged 16-64, and all essential workers. For more information, or to register, visit covid19.SEARHC.org.

Unified Command recommends citizens to enroll for a vaccination online with Harry Race Pharmacy at Harry Race COVID Vaccination Tier3 Bookings and with SEARHC at https://covid19.searhc.org/.

We urge citizens to remain diligent and practice proper hygiene measures, such as washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with others and keeping your social circle small. In addition, stay home if you feel ill, wear a face covering when around others, and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces on a regular basis.

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to the flu – fever, aching, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, and sometimes decreased sense of taste and smell. If you are concerned you might have contracted the coronavirus contact the COVID hotline at 966.8799 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Outside of normal clinic hours, patients can contact the SEARHC 24/7 Nurse Advice Line at 1.800.613.0560 to be triaged by a registered nurse. 

The Emergency Operations Center encourages residents to prepare for any local emergency by ensuring each family member has a 14- day emergency supply kit, including any necessary medications.

For information on the local pandemic response, visit cityofsitka.org or covid19.searhc.org.

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Part 3 of 3 video series: When does my home isolation period end

This short video is the final part of a three-part series from DHSS that tells you about when your home isolation period ends if you test positive for COVID-19.

You can view the whole series on this YouTube playlist:

The videos can also be found on this DHSS webpage:

Alaska Department of Health & Social Services Weekly Case Update for January 10 – January 16, 2021

Status report

  • Based on the daily growth rate of cases, viral transmission in Alaska followed a general downward trajectory during December. However, during the first two weeks of January the trajectory flattened out, raising concern for an uptick in transmission.
  • Every Alaskan who chooses to wear a mask, stay 6 feet from others, and avoid indoor gatherings helps protect themselves and the health of all Alaskans.
  • The statewide effort to provide every Alaskan with the option of receiving a vaccine as soon as supply allows is ongoing and accelerating as quickly as possible, although vaccine supply remains scarce. Two vaccines for COVID-19 have received FDA emergency use authorization and are currently being administered in Alaska. The state allocation for December and January has been distributed and we are waiting to hear about the number of vaccines Alaska is allocated for February.
  • Currently eligible groups for vaccination include those in Phase 1a: healthcare workers and residents in nursing homes, and those in Phase 1b Tier 1, Alaskans aged 65 or older. Other groups in Phase 1b may not register at this time but may register as soon as vaccination opens for their phase and tier. All registration for vaccines should go through the registration system on covidvax.alaska.gov, which also has an eligibility tool for any Alaskan unsure of when they can receive the vaccine. All updates on phases and tiers will be posted on that website and new appointments are added on a continuous basis; Alaskans are encouraged to check it frequently.
  • Several new variants of the virus causing COVID-19 have been reported, including one in the United Kingdom (UK), one in South Africa and one from Brazil. The UK variant appears to spread faster but does not appear to cause more severe disease. As of 1/15/2021, cases of the UK variant have been confirmed in multiple regions of the United States and Canada. None have yet been found in Alaska. CDC is monitoring the new variants and encouraging states to do more sequencing. The Alaska State Public Health Laboratories routinely sequence a subset of positive SARS-CoV-2 tests including all that contain the pattern associated with the UK strain.
  • Since at least one of these new strains is thought to be more transmissible, masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings, following all travel requirements, and other mitigation measures are our best tools to decrease the chance of the new variant entering Alaska and spreading.
  • Alaska Health Order 6 requires, at minimum, a test within 72 hours before arrival and strict social distancing for five days on arrival to Alaska. To stop new strains of virus like the UK strain from coming into Alaska and spreading, testing 1-3 days before travel, staying home for 7 days after travel and testing again 3-5 days after travel as laid out in the new CDC guidelines for international and domestic travel is highly encouraged. Starting Jan 26, 2021, the CDC will require international travelers to show proof of a negative test from within the last 72 hours on arrival back in the US.
  • CDC guidelines recommend regular testing for critical infrastructure workers and other groups at higher risk for COVID-19, even if they are asymptomatic. While these recommendations are not requirements for testing, DHSS is available to consult on the logistics of expanding testing.
  • Alaskans should get tested immediately at the first sign of any symptoms. Tests work best when obtained promptly after symptoms start. Testing early helps people know if they are positive quickly and helps prompt them to take immediate precautions to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
  • Most Alaskans get COVID-19 from a friend, family member, or coworker. Many Alaskans who are diagnosed with COVID-19 report that they went to social gatherings, community events, church services, and other social venues while they were contagious but before they knew they had the virus.
  • Alaskans should avoid indoor gatherings with non-household members, avoid crowds, wear masks when around non-household members, and stay 6 feet from anyone not in their household.
  • As cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase across the United States, the safest way to connect with others is electronically. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19.
COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

Case trends and predictions

  • 1,702 new cases were reported in Alaskans last week. This is a 19% decrease from the week before and still reflects continued high-level community transmission throughout much of Alaska.
  • 14-day average daily case rates remained similar to the previous week in many regions of Alaska. The largest increase was seen in the Northwest Region, from 46.6 to 69.0, and the Northern Southeast Region nearly doubled its case rate from 7.7 to 14.7. Smaller increases were seen in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Juneau City and Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough, and Southwest Region. All regions of Alaska other than the Southern Southeast Region and Juneau City and Borough continue to have high community transmission and are at a high alert level.
  • The estimated statewide daily growth rate as of January 18, 2021 is -0.8% and new cases are expected to halve every 82 days based on current modeling, an increase from two weeks ago in which the growth rate was -4.2% and cases were expected to halve every 16 days.  
COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

Regional case trends

Behavioral Health RegionCase rates
Nov 29– Dec 12*
Case rates
Dec 5– Dec 19
Case rates
Dec 13– Dec 26
Case rates
Dec 20– Jan 2
Case rates
Jan 3– Jan 9
Case rates
Jan 10– Jan 16
Anchorage Municipality87.773.346.440.039.531.9
Fairbanks North Star Borough65.561.833.832.639.342.1
Interior Region except Fairbanks46.935.023.223.827.126.8
Juneau City and Borough23.717.014.713.67.47.8
Kenai Peninsula Borough75.560.740.022.319.219.6
Matanuska-Susitna Region113.962.
Northern Southeast Region19.
Northwest Region68.258.936.525.346.669.0
Southern Southeast Region14.
Southwest Region117.289.050.942.535.841.0
Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region164.8158.073.3144.2152.8136.3

*Note: case rates for Nov 29–Dec 12 reflect 2-week case rates through Dec 14

Vaccines status update

COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

As of January 18, 2020.

  • The State of Alaska is working with federal, local, Tribal, and military partners to ensure that the distribution of vaccine goes as quickly and smoothly as possible.
  • A limited amount of vaccine is currently available with more expected to be delivered in the coming months. As of January 15, nearly 44,000 Alaskans had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine and more than 11,000 had received both doses. On January 18, the New York Times vaccination tracker had Alaska second only to West Virginia for percent of residents vaccinated. The Alaska vaccine tracker is available online as is a vaccine dashboard for more up-to-date data.
  • There is a several day lag in reporting some vaccinations so the dashboard does not yet reflect all vaccinations that have been given. All vaccines allocated to Alaska for December and January have been distributed or are otherwise intended for a specific appointment within the month of January.
  • There are no plans to mandate a vaccine at the state level.
  • The national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) is responsible for providing national recommendations for vaccine administration and allocation.

New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths

  • During the week of January 10 through January 16, 2021, 1,702 new Alaska cases were reported, a 19% decrease from last week, for a total of 50,296 cumulative cases in Alaskans.
  • Cumulative hospitalizations increased to 1,130 with 10 reported as occurring this week. Hospitalization reports often lag and only 1,080 hospitalizations were reported at this time last week, so there are 50 hospitalizations newly reported this week including ones that began during previous weeks.
  • Deaths among Alaska residents increased by 5 (228 total). All deaths occurred prior to this past week. It is common to take more than a week for a death to be reported, and more deaths that occurred during Jan 10–Jan 16 may be reported in future.
  • 48 new nonresident cases were identified this week, for a total of 1,642 cases.
COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

Health care capacity

  • On January 18, 59 Alaskans with confirmed COVID-19 were hospitalized and 8 were reported to have required a mechanical ventilator.
  • Hospital staffing can change quickly, particularly if a community has many health workers impacted by COVID-19.
COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

Cases by Week Reported and Age Group

COVID-19 Alaska Weekly Update

Additional informational resources:

For DHSS media inquiries, please contact clinton.bennett@alaska.gov.

Sitka COVID-19 Vaccine Registration

Currently there are two options for COVID-19 vaccine registration in Sitka.

The State of Alaska, in collaboration with Harry Race Pharmacy, is distributing vaccines based on CDC and State guidelines. Registration is now open for healthcare workers and individuals age 65+. To schedule an appointment, call 1-907-646-3322 or visit: https://outlook.office365.com/owa/calendar/HarryRacePharmacy1@whitesalaska.com/bookings/

A vaccine is also available through SEARHC. Registration is available to all residents at https://covid19.searhc.org/. The SEARHC COVID-19 sequencing follows guidelines from the CDC and State of Alaska. As sequencing groups open, eligible individuals will receive an email from SEARHC to schedule a vaccine appointment.

Currently, SEARHC is scheduling those age 65 and older, all medically vulnerable individuals aged 16-64, and all essential workers. New clinics will be added as vaccine supply arrives.

Please assist your Elders and family members with online vaccine registration. In time, everyone who would like to get vaccinated will be able to.