Administrators pleading with Alaskans to get vaccinated as hospitals fill up

Growing COVID-19 hospitalizations means return of pandemic policies for some hospitals
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 5:43 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska hospital administrators issued an urgent plea to the public Tuesday: Get vaccinated before hospital capacity is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

The Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Home Association hosted a news conference Tuesday via Zoom. It’s only the second time the association has held a news conference in the last decade or so, according to the association’s president and CEO Jared Kosin. The last one was held in November, before COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked in Alaska.

“As of yesterday, COVID hospitalizations reached December levels,” Kosin said. “At this rate, we’re tracking towards a significant care event. And on the downside here, the healthcare system is a far more fragile state than it was before. We have less room, we have less staff, and we have a burned out workforce.”

Anchorage hospitals have been steadily creeping toward capacity limits since last week. At that time, health officials said COVID-19 cases were not driving the capacity trend but were a concerning factor.

Now, some hospitals are bringing back pandemic policies in an effort to avoid being overrun.

One by one on Tuesday, the CEO’s of each of Anchorage’s three hospitals spoke, urging Alaskans to get vaccinated and describing internal measures they’ve already taken to mitigate capacity issues.

“On Friday, in collaboration with our surgical governance team, the difficult decision was made to postpone non-urgent elective surgeries that would require an overnight hospitalization on Monday and Tuesday of this week,” said Ella Goss, CEO of Alaska Providence Medical Center.

Dr. Bob Onders, CEO of Alaska Native Medical Center, said the facility is once again restricting visitation.

“We’re changing our visitor policy again back ... similar to the fall outbreak,” he explained. “and that impacts patients’ care as those are essential caregivers that we want to have in the health care setting.”

“The bottom line is that our hospital is already very busy with sick Alaskans,” said Alaska Regional Hospital CEO Jennifer Opsut. “If this trend of increased COVID cases continues, we are concerned that our hospitals will become overwhelmed here in Anchorage.”

In Southeast Alaska, Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO Rose Lawhorne echoed their statements, urging Alaskans to make the decision to get vaccinated now, so that doctors and nurses are not faced with making difficult decisions for them in the future.

“We don’t want to have to make decisions about how we’re going to spread thin our precious resources in hospitals and health care facilities,” Lawhorne said.

Hospital administrators described patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as younger and sicker than seen previously, and either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

“There are situations where you do have younger people in an ICU, they’re getting ready to be intubated, and they’re saying they’re ready for their vaccine. They’ll take it,” Kosin said. “Now, we all know it’s too late at that point. So, that’s not just something happening outside of Alaska, it’s happening here as well.”

Kosin said the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink were listening to the call.

Later on Tuesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy released a statement urging Alaskans to practice common health safety measures in light of the hospital capacity issues noted during the news conference.

“There are many everyday actions we all can take to ensure the personal safety of ourselves and our neighbors, including driving safely, using the right protective gear when operating power tools and machinery, wearing a life jacket, preparing for the elements, extinguishing our camp and cooking fires, as well as choosing to take advantage of a free COVID-19 vaccine, which I have done,” Dunleavy’s statement read. “Make no mistake: while to some of us these requests sound menial, watching out for each other can save us or a loved one a trip to a hospital with our overstretched doctors, nurses, and paramedics.”

As of Tuesday, state data showed that there are 94 people being hospitalized with COVID-19 along with one person being hospitalized with a suspected case. In Anchorage, state data shows there are 58 adult non-ICU beds still available out of 622, and just 18 adult ICU beds available out of 74.

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