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YKHC urges people to get vaccinated before omicron overwhelms the health care system

A drive-thru test site was erected in a YKHC parking lot in preparation for the COVID-19 emergency. Testing for COVID-19 in the open air is safer than testing inside of the hospital. March 25, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska.
Katie Basile

The more transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19 is in Alaska and expected to become the dominant strain in the Y-K Delta. Local health officials warn that omicron infections could overwhelm the health care system, and they are begging the public to get vaccinated or boosted if they haven't already.

Here’s what scientists know so far about the omicron variant of COVID-19, according to Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges: “We think it's more transmissible, possibly as much as twice as transmissible as Delta, which is already more transmissible than the original variant that had circulated in our region a year ago. And also, we think it might be less dangerous. In other words, it might cause a less severe illness.”

Hodges said that the omicron variant is still dangerous enough to hospitalize some people that are infected, and she said it appears to be nearly as transmissible as measles, one of the most contagious known diseases. She said that one report showed omicron was able to linger in a room and infect people who entered it after the originally infected person had left.

“Even if it causes a milder illness, if we have hundreds and hundreds of people infected at the same time, we're going to be in big trouble with our health care system,” Hodges said.

YKHC CEO and President Dan Winkelman said that at the same time that omicron could send a large wave of people to the hospital at once, fewer staff may be there to care for them because hospital staff could be infected as well.

“The CDC says the health system should expect up to a third of your workforce not being able to report to work,” Winkelman said.

YKHC is trying to hire dozens of temporary duty nurses in case there is a large outbreak among Bethel hospital staff. They’re competing with hospitals nationwide that are also dealing with a nursing shortage. The health corporation is also stockpiling protective equipment and preparing to reintroduce work-from-home policies.

“The community can count on us to do our part. And we have been doing that. We started omicron preparations on Dec. 20. But what we really need is the community's help, and that's for people to get vaccinated and boosted, and do not wait,” Winkelman said.

Hodges said that while vaccine efficacy wanes after six months, research shows that booster shots can raise the vaccine efficacy from 40% back to 90%, even against the omicron variant. She said that natural immunity from having had previous variants of COVID-19 do not seem to protect against infection from omicron.

About 60% of the total population in the Y-K Delta is fully vaccinated, and about a fifth of the region is boosted. Hodges added that over 90% of the people who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

And if the next wave brought on by omicron is a worst case scenario situation, Hodges said that the region may need more than vaccines to reduce the spread of the variant.

“I mean, everything's on the table. Recommending telecommuting is on the table. Recommending sheltering in place is definitely on the table,” Hodges said.

She said that schools, however, have shown that they can safely stay open with regular testing, masking, keeping sick students home, and more people getting vaccinated.

Anyone over the age of five can receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Anyone over the age of 16 can receive a booster if it has been six months since their initial shots of Pfizer or Moderna, or two months after their Johnson and Johnson shot. In Bethel, you can walk into the hospital any weekday without an appointment to get a vaccine. If you live in a village, call your local health clinic to schedule an appointment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that YKHC said that the omicron variant could hospitalize hundreds of individuals at once. YKHC said that hundreds of people could be infected at once, but did not say that hundreds of people could be hospitalized at once.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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