Hospitals watch bed capacity as cases go up and temperatures go down
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s been about three weeks straight of daily COVID-19 case counts exceeding 100 in Alaska. Providence Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bernstein said that is not a good place to be as the state heads into winter, or as he put it, the busy season for hospitals.
As of Wednesday’s count, there were 84 of 137 intensive care unit beds filled. 40 of those 84 beds have positive COVID patients in them according to the DHSS coronavirus response hub.
Bernstein said a slight silver lining with the recent surge of cases is who is getting COVID-19 the most right now: people in their 20s and 30s. He said while that group does tend to fare well with the virus, it’s the risk of them passing it along to those who don’t normally fare well with the disease.
That is one variable Bernstein said could rapidly cause hospitals to be overwhelmed quickly. Another big one is the coming winter.
“In the winter, there are other things going on. So we have people that, you know, get frostbite, they can get a bacterial pneumonia, there are all kinds of things that can happen. We’re spending more time indoors and we know that COVID is less transmissible outdoors but it’s going to be cold and dark here pretty soon. So all those things come together and the hospital tends to fill up," he said.
Bernstein also reminded that hospitals like Providence need to take care of all sorts of trauma patients and other injuries.
He also said that those hospitalized by the flu could be a major factor in hospital capacities in the coming weeks. However, he said that all the things people do to lower the spread of COVID-19 — masks, social distancing, good hygiene — all can and should lower the spread of the flu.
Still, they have to know what a patient has to react correctly. Bernstein said Providence will very soon start to test patients for a variety of illnesses when they test for COVID-19.
A surge in cases and the effect on bed capacity is something hospitals in the state have been preparing for, for months.
If the ICU fills up, Bernstein said they have an additional unit meant for recovering patients that “have all the bedside equipment to take care of a very sick patient.” He said they have not converted it at this time.
At Alaska Regional Hospital, spokespeople said they have a COVID-19 unit with 19 beds added to their 14 ICU beds. Regional is also has surge plans in place to add to that number if necessary, according to a spokesperson.
Additionally, the Alaska Airlines Center has been sitting ready as an alternate care facility since April. In the first phase of that operation, 51 beds could be added to the capacity. At its maximum capacity, with all phases activated, the alternate care facility could hold 163 patients.
Bernstein said the joint coalition of hospitals overseeing it came close to activating it since the pandemic started, but it still hasn’t seen a single patient. He said they are hoping to keep it that way. He said if they were to activate it, the state’s ICU bed capacity would likely need to be nearing full.
Other than not wanting a surge of new cases to potentially cause more deaths and more strain on hospital workers, there are a few reasons they don’t want to activate the alternate care facility.
“One of the reasons is that if we’re having difficulty right now just staffing the hospital beds that we have, where are we going to get staff to staff that facility?” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said they are having trouble filling certain roles like nurses and respiratory therapists.
“We have had days where we’ve had beds, we have rooms, but we can’t put a patient in them because we don’t have adequate nursing to take care of them,” he said.
Basically, Bernstein as well as the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Administration said that there is a lot of work to be done with COVID-19 in the Lower 48 and high demand for specifically trained nurses.
Alaska usually hires a lot of traveling health care workers in the winter according to Bernstein. This year, he said it’s particularly hard to get those workers up here.
Providence said in a statement that they have the money to pay them. But, it’s hard to get those workers to travel so far when they can stay in the Lower 48, closer to home and still make a competitive wage.
Bernstein also said while the testing travel restrictions to enter the state does help with lowering the spread of the virus, it makes it more difficult to hire folks when they have to quarantine for an amount of time before they can work.
He said the same effect can be seen whenever health care providers get sick with any illness and have to stay home until they know whether it’s COVID-19 or not.
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