How Alaska seniors have fared in the pandemic

No point being a member of the “Nice Club.” We seniors are important, and there are a lot of us. There are 139,000 seniors (age 60+) in the state. We represent 19% of the total Alaska population. According to the June 2019 issue of Alaska Economic Trends, Alaska seniors are growing faster than in any other state. We are one heck of a voting bloc, and we contribute billions of dollars to the state’s economy every year. Nevertheless, I resist beating my chest yelling, “We are invincible!”

Because we are not. The pandemic hit us pretty hard and laid us low. Things are definitely getting better now, and we’ll get to that, but here is some of the not-so-good news first. The COVID-19 news started out promising. We are 19% of the total population, but we only got 15% of Alaska’s COVID infections, according to Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services’ March 19, 2021 report, Demographic Distribution of Cases.

We weren’t infected with as much COVID compared to the rest of the state, but when we were, it hit us hard. As of March 19, 2021, 788 seniors had been hospitalized due to COVID. We represented fully 60% of all Alaskans hospitalized for COVID. In other words, once we came down with COVID, we were about four times more likely to end up in the hospital compared to younger age groups. No question about it – that’s not good. Moving on, I have only one more piece of bad news, then it gets better.

COVID killed 265 seniors in Alaska as of March 19. In fact, an astounding 87% of all COVID-related deaths in Alaska were seniors. This parallels the extremely high mortality of seniors across the nation, but still, we were hit really hard. We are still grieving.

But now, the better news. Alaska is reported to have a higher proportion of its residents vaccinated that any other state. Truly a remarkable achievement. As of March 23, 2021, nearly 20% of Alaska’s population have been vaccinated. But here is an extraordinary caveat: If you look just at Alaska seniors (65+ for this purpose), a whopping 62% have been fully vaccinated, and several percent more have had one of two shots and await the second. This is according to the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services Coronavirus Response Hub.

There are a couple of special communities of Alaskan seniors we ought to take a peek at. The first is seniors who are in long-term-care facilities. In Alaska and across the nation, seniors in these facilities have been ravaged by COVID-19. I inquired about this issue at a March 17, 2021 panel discussion featuring several Alaska public health experts. Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, staff physician with Public Health for the Alaska COVID Task Force, responded. “We just did a study to try to improve our data collection on long term care,” she said. “It’s difficult because they’re using the federal partners [private pharmacies that contract directly with the federal government] for that vaccination. And currently, it looks like we have about 89% of long-term care residents. Our staff vaccinations are a little low at 57%. As a state, we’ve been working really hard to do outreach education on vaccine hesitancy in that kind of long-term care staff population.”

Another relatively hidden but fast-growing community of seniors is incarcerated in prisons and jails across Alaska. According to the Alaska Dept. of Corrections 2019 Offender Profile, at that time there were 296 incarcerated seniors (age 60+) in Alaska – approximately 7% of all offenders in institutions. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, said in a panel discussion in March that “we’ve been seeing this as a potential real challenge … with cases kind of accelerating.”

In the same discussion, Toni Hackney, Nursing Administrator, Dept. of Corrections, said, “We have a very fluid population. Some people come in and they stay in for a day, and some people stay in for years. And so it is constantly changing. At the time of our mass clinics, we were able to vaccinate at least 50% of them. Some facilities were a lot higher percentage than that, and other ones are a little bit lower with the declines, and also with that fluidness as they came in and went out back into the community... We have pretty good uptake for our facilities and for that vulnerable population.”

Bottom line: Your friends and your family want you around as long as possible. Get that vaccination! Call the COVID helpline at 907-646-3322 for assistance. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

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