‘We’re concerned’: Anchorage hospitals operating close to capacity are seeing influx of COVID-19 patients

Health officials say COVID-19 cases aren’t driving current hospital capacity trends, but are a contributing factor
Providence Alaska Medical Center.
Providence Alaska Medical Center.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 5:20 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The number of people infected with COVID-19 and needing hospitalization is growing quickly, putting stress on Anchorage’s already strained health care system, according to health officials.

According to state’s COVID-19 data dashboard, there were 35 adult ICU beds available statewide as of Wednesday, as well as 367 adult non-ICU beds.

In Anchorage, there were 36 adult non-ICU beds still available, and just nine adult ICU beds.

At Providence Alaska Medical Center, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bernstein said Thursday the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital is four times what it was a month ago.

“From a capacity point of view as well as a staffing point of view, we’re running pretty full, and we have been for probably six weeks or so,” he said. “And now in the past few weeks, we are adding more COVID cases than we had in the late spring, and that is stressing our capacity.”

Bernstein said the patients admitted with COVID-19 are almost entirely unvaccinated, and younger than the patients they saw last winter, during the height of the pandemic.

“Patients are very sick, they’re just as sick as the older patients were,” he said. “We think that is because the delta variant — in addition to being more transmissible, more contagious — is also more virulent. It actually could make people sicker than earlier variants that we had in Alaska.”

The summer is usually a busy time for hospitals, but this year retirements, burnout and fewer traveling nurses have led to staffing shortages that make them less prepared to handle another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Kosin and Bernstein.

“What we’re experiencing in the hospital world right now, we cannot take another substantial event on top of it,” said Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Home Association CEO Jared Kosin.

Kosin said COVID-19 cases aren’t driving the current hospital capacity trends, but are a concerning contributing factor.

“The concern is we’re starting to see these outbreaks and we’re starting to see cases kind of double, and we all know where that pattern leads to,” he said. “and I think what we are saying is, we’re not trying to put people in a panic or anything like that, but the facts are on the ground right now. The hospitals are extremely busy, and there is not room to absorb a large number of hospitalizations on top of the rate we’re currently at.”

Anchorage hospitals are considering the possibility that they might have to take steps to improve capacity, such as pausing elective surgeries, if the situation worsens, according to Bernstein. Kjerstin Lastufka, a spokesperson with Alaska Regional Hospital, also said planned surgeries are being reviewed.

She wrote in an email Thursday that the hospital is very near its capacity.

“We are not completely full, but are carefully reviewing planned surgical cases with our physician partners to ensure we are able to meet the needs of our patients,” she wrote.

According to Lastufka, 24 patients at Alaska Regional Hospital were positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. She noted the same trends as Bernstein, when it comes to the patients’ age and vaccination status.

“Most of these patients are either not vaccinated, or not fully vaccinated,” she wrote. “The pattern we are seeing is consistent with what the CDC is reporting across the country — a younger demographic (<65) are making up a larger percentage of those hospitalizations than in previous waves.”

Health officials say public behavior is the greatest tool in heading off a large-scale COVID-19 event that would overwhelm Alaska’s already taxed hospitals. They recommend vaccination as the best way for people to protect themselves, and also urge Alaskans — particularly those who are not vaccinated, to consider wearing masks in public — to practice social distancing and avoid large indoor gatherings.

“What could come is concerning,” Kosin said. “And we all need to take this very seriously right now.”

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