Alaska says 5 deaths from facility that had virus outbreak

August 20, 2021 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Five residents of a state-supported elder-care facility in Ketchikan who tested positive for COVID-19 died in the last week, a state health department spokesperson said Thursday.

Clinton Bennett, the spokesperson, in a written response to a question on whether the deaths were COVID-19-related, said the state-supported Pioneer Homes “do not determine the cause of death nor do they see the death certificates of residents.” He said the five residents of the Ketchikan Pioneer Home who recently died “had tested positive for COVID-19.”

“In the last week, the Ketchikan Pioneer Home has had five resident deaths and there has been a total of 12 residents and five staff test positive for COVID-19 this month,” he wrote. Bennett later said the first positive case had been identified July 27. He said the total number of confirmed cases remained unchanged.

When asked if those who had died had been vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett said that was personal health information that could not be shared.

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“Every one of these deaths is the death of a person who lived and made their home at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home,” he said. “The loss of each one is felt deeply by our staff and our hearts go out to the family and friends they leave behind.”

The Pioneer Home system falls under the state health department. The home in Ketchikan has a vaccination rate of more than 90% for residents and staff, Bennett said by email. He said 37 people reside at the home and 65 staff work there.

Bennett said the majority of cases tied to the recent COVID-19 outbreak in the home “are no longer considered active, but if cases are considered active, they are asked to quarantine for at least 10 days after the positive test.”

Bennett said testing is being done every three to four days until two weeks have passed without a positive result.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the health department, said a cyberattack in May that affected the department and led to services being taken offline has impacted some of the work that was being done to review death certificates.

Death certificate reviews have been one of the ways that COVID-19-related deaths have been publicly reported.

“Most of the deaths that we’ve been reporting have been reported by hospitals and not from that sort of death certificate review situation,” she said. Castrodale said steps were being taken to get the services back online.

Statewide, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and the state health department on Wednesday said the highly contagious delta variant accounts “for almost all newly detected cases” in Alaska. State health officials have continued to encourage vaccinations.

About 54% of Alaskans 12 or older have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, told reporters Thursday that the longer that people delay getting vaccinated, “the more likely it is that they will get COVID, and it will be an ongoing threat for months and months to come.”