Alaska in Brief

Alaska’s COVID ‘superstorm’ experience of 2021 offers lessons for future pandemics, study says

By: - August 24, 2022 4:49 pm
A COVID-19 testing site operated by the Arctic Slope Native Association is seen on Aug. 2 in Utqiagvik. The pandemic put new demands on an Alaska healthcare workforce that was already suffering from staff shortages. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A COVID-19 testing site operated by the Arctic Slope Native Association is seen on Aug. 2 in Utqiagvik. Alaska's wave with the delta variant that was dominant in 2021 differed from patterns in other parts of the Arctic, where COVID caseloads were light through 2020, according to a new study. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s experience with the delta wave that emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic is likened to a “superstorm” in a new study that compares pandemic patterns in regions across the Arctic.

The study, by a research group at the University of Northern Iowa that is focusing on COVID-19 in the Arctic, was published on Aug. 17 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

Alaska’s pattern with the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was one of swelling case and fatality rates starting in late July of 2021, which followed the state’s earlier wave that crested in late 2020. Though Alaska’s delta wave peaked in September of 2021, the rate of new cases stayed high for two more months.

That is different from what was termed a “tsunami” pattern in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, northern Norway, northern Finland and northern Canada.  The pandemic was slow to reach many of those regions, and caseloads were low through 2020. That made the delta variant of the disease the first major COVID-19 wave to hit those regions, the study said.

In the northern part of Sweden, a country that became famous for its relative lack of restrictions early in the pandemic, the pattern was a “sustained wave,” as classified by the study. There was steady growth in cases and a very high fatality rate in 2020, but Sweden tightened its rules at the start of 2021, and the subsequent delta wave that hit in the fall of that year, though protracted, was minor compared to earlier waves.

The delta pattern in northern Russia was likened to a “tidal wave,” with an initial decline in new cases in early 2021 that was reduce d in the middle of the year by a sharp increase.

The delta variant of the virus became the dominant cause of the disease in 2021, but it has since been replaced by other variants.

Alaska’s experience with the 2021 delta wave provides important lessons, both positive and negative, the study said. The quick distribution of vaccines, attributed in large part to the work of Native organizations, corresponded with a reduced fatality rate even as COVID-19 was making its way to extremely remote regions of the world, it said.

Alaska’s initial higher vaccination rates were largely attributable to strong vaccine-distribution networks, Indigenous values that emphasize protection and honoring elders, along with “culturally tailored messaging strategies to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and tribal sovereignty that allowed the tribal groups to establish their campaign and priorities,” the study said. Prioritizing vaccination access for key community members like elders, knowledge keepers and health providers “boosted the general confidence of Alaskans in the vaccine,” it said.

That was a contrast to the situation in northern Russia, where low vaccination rates, combined “with the low level of preparedness, inconsistent public health prevention measures, curtailed healthcare capacities, and other factors,” correlated to high death rates.

On the negative side, the study noted that the steep increase in cases during Alaska’s 2021 delta wave came after the state lifted its restrictions – and that Alaska became a national COVID hotspot during the delta wave. In Alaska, as in other areas, “early reopening might have hampered the efforts to curtail the pandemic,” the study said.

In all, the experiences across the Arctic suggest that a “delay-prepare-respond” approach is best for managing pandemics in remote and largely Indigenous regions and communities, the study concludes.

“The Arctic approach not only reduces fatalities but addresses challenges produced by COVID-19 while also offering an important lesson to cope with future pandemics which will likely be inevitable and more aggressive,” it said.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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