Dr. Peter Rice speaks during a December 2020 COVID-19 vaccine clinic at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

COVID-19 hospitalizations are up in Ketchikan as the omicron variant is leading to record case numbers.


Ketchikan hit a record 241 active cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to a local public health dashboard. That broke the previous record set last week that was just shy of 200 cases. And these numbers don’t include at-home antigen test results.

State health officials say the vast majority of Alaska’s new COVID-19 cases are the highly contagious omicron variant.

PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center has 25 beds and is seeing more COVID-19 patients than usual. PeaceHealth Medical Group Division Chief Dr. Peter Rice says there were seven patients hospitalized on Tuesday. That number was down to five as of Wednesday.

“So we’re doing okay, and we certainly have plenty of capacity to expand that,” Rice said in an on-air interview Wednesday. “But it’s on the higher end of our typical COVID census.”

The all-time record high for COVID-19 patients in Ketchikan is nine.

Rice says evidence shows that omicron is typically more mild than prior variants of COVID-19 — it tends to infect the upper respiratory tract rather than the lungs. But Rice says the sheer number of infections means more people are getting sick.

“And so some percentage of those folks are going to be sick enough to require hospitalization, require oxygen, require specialized medications, such as steroids, or remdesivir, require the proning position, things like that,” he said.

He says the hospital isn’t running into issues transferring patients out at the moment. Ketchikan patients are often transferred to Seattle or Anchorage for more intense and specialized care.

While hospitalizations are up, new prescription-only treatments recently authorized by federal authorities are arriving in Ketchikan.

PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center’s lead pharmacist, Satish Putta, says people with underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes or a history of smoking should contact a doctor as soon as possible if they test positive.

“Time is of essence,” Putta said. “If we wait too long in the disease progression, most of these treatments are not going to be effective. So they are recommended within five days of onset of symptoms, these antiviral pills, and patients don’t qualify for this treatment if they pass 10 days (since) of onset of symptoms.”

Putta says an antiviral pill from drugmaker Merck, Molnupiravir, is now available at Ketchikan pharmacies in limited quantities. He says another antiviral pill from Pfizer known as Paxlovid is not yet available in Ketchikan. The Pfizer pill was shown to be much more effective in clinical trials. Both are outpatient treatments.

Putta says the lone authorized monoclonal antibody treatment effective against omicron, sotrovimab, is also available in Ketchikan, but supplies are limited.

“As we all can understand with the surge that we are seeing, our resources are stretched thin, so it is being allocated by the government,” Putta said.

Inpatient treatments are also available. But Putta says most mild cases can be treated like a cold.

“For most mildly ill patients, there’s really no treatment necessary. You can manage it by just getting enough rest, staying well hydrated, and taking medications for fever, aches and pain,” he said. “As you would manage flu, you can manage similarly COVID, for most mildly ill patients.”

Rice encourages anyone with COVID-19 symptoms — sore throat, cough, fever or other flu-like symptoms — to seek testing as soon as possible.

Daily drive-through testing is available in the parking lot of Ketchikan’s Alaska Marine Highway Terminal from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Except on Sunday. At-home rapid tests are available for free at Ketchikan fire stations. Private health insurance is required to cover eight tests per month, and four free at-home tests per residential address are now available from the federal government at covidtests.gov.