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Alaska health care experts concerned over hospital capacity, staffing with COVID-19 surge

Ohio County has had 584 cases of the virus and 9 deaths to date.
Ohio County has had 584 cases of the virus and 9 deaths to date.(AP)
Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 8:58 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - COVID-19 cases in Alaska are surging and health care experts across the state are concerned about the impacts on hospital capacity and staffing.

“The current situation with the COVID-19 epidemic in Alaska shows that sustained community transmission is occurring widely throughout the state,” said Dr. Thomas Hennessy, an epidemiologist with the University of Alaska Anchorage, to a House Health and Social Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

The Department of Health and Social Services reported 215 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the fifth straight day that more than 200 cases have been reported in Alaska. Alaska has also seen 27 consecutive days with more than 100 cases reported per day.

A majority of regions across Alaska are at the “high” alert level, exceeding the threshold of 10 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. Only Southwest Alaska and Southeast Alaska are at a lower alert level.

The City and Borough of Juneau shifted the city’s alert level back to “high” after 35 cases were announced on Tuesday. Twenty-four of the new cases are part of an outbreak among Juneau’s homeless population, which stands at 62 positive cases.

Alaska does have some bright spots, it continues to have the lowest COVID-19 death rate across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state is seeing nine COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 182 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people in New Jersey.

The state’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate also remains low. Across Alaska, there are currently 38 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and 10 patients on ventilators.

The state’s hospitals also have 563 inpatient beds available and 43 intensive care unit beds available, but health experts warn that that doesn’t tell the full story. They also warn that the current hospital capacity could change quickly.

Anchorage has averaged 95 positive cases per day for the past 14 days compared to an average of 40 positive COVID-19 cases per day in mid-September. Hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths have often lagged behind a spike in cases.

“So, given the previous trends, I would expect hospitalizations to continue increasing over the next few weeks, or longer, depending on the case counts,” said Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Municipality of Anchorage’s Health Department.

Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, agreed. “We don’t think the wave has fully hit our doors yet, so we expect hospitalizations to increase into the foreseeable future,” he said.

The governor’s COVID-19 disaster declaration is set to end on Nov. 15 which could cause other challenges.

Allowing the declaration to expire would cause the governor’s health mandates that are currently in effect to be rescinded. Kosin said there could be other impacts, too.

The state could be ineligible to receive federal funds for COVID-19 without a state disaster declaration. Federal waivers that allowed telehealth services to be expanded could also be impacted, Kosin said.

Legislative leaders told Alaska Public Media in early October that the Legislature did not have the numbers to call itself into a special session to extend the disaster declaration. “At this time, the governor is still assessing his options on the disaster declaration,” said Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, on Tuesday.

Health care staffing in Alaska continues to be an issue, too.

Dr. Bob Onders, the medical director at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said he had recently requested critical care nurses from the Indian Health Service with a rising case count. COVID-19 cases rising in the Lower 48 means there is a shortage of available health care workers across the country.

“We’re going to be in a very challenging situation to provide the level of care that’s needed as the counts continue to escalate,” Onders said.

Much of rural Alaska has seen a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta recorded 78 new cases on Tuesday and one new COVID-19 death.

Dr. Ellen Hodges, the chief of staff at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., said younger Alaskans are driving a rise in cases in the region, a trend that’s been seen across the state. Hodges said that 62% of recent COVID-19 cases had been recorded in people who are under the age of 40.

The influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus seasons are also set to begin soon. Health care experts warn that could further stretch the state’s hospital system. “Rural Alaska is at a tipping point for exponential growth,” Hodges said.

Colder weather has an impact, too. With more people meeting indoors, Alaska’s health care workers are recommending people across the state redouble COVID-19 precautions: wear face masks, avoid large indoor gatherings and maintain a safe social distance.

“The time to act is now,” Hodges said.

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