Anchorage doctors warn collapse of the hospital system is ‘imminent’ without reduced transmission of COVID-19

Published: Aug. 20, 2021 at 8:21 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - One after another, doctors who have been treating Alaska’s sick and dying COVID-19 patients called into an Anchorage Assembly work session Friday to share the horrors they’re seeing inside overwhelmed intensive care units and plead for the city’s leaders to act.

“These images, we cannot un-see them. We cannot forget them,” one doctor said, after sharing that they recently volunteered to relieve a tearful nurse who was holding a dying patient’s hand. “We decided that no one should die alone.”

Another doctor thanked assembly members for listening, saying, “I think all of us feel like we have been screaming into the void for a very very long time. We’re tired and we are terrified and heartbroken for our communities.”

The current wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, is “almost entirely preventable,” they say. Three different COVID-19 vaccines that have been proven safe and effective at preventing hospitalization and death have been available to Alaskans for months.

“We are on the verge of a hospital system collapse,” said another doctor. “That happens when you have the right number of patients, right, and acuity, that burnout, right, which leads to staff shortages and supply shortages. This is a very, very imminent reality.”

One doctor described the treatment the most severely ill COVID-19 patients undergo and often do not survive, explaining they’re placed on ventilators and hooked up to tubes throughout their bodies to allow them to function and breathe.

“Surviving is not necessarily living,” she said. “The best way to treat COVID is to not get it in the first place.”

Hospitals in Anchorage have also run out of one of three medications they’ve used to treat COVID patients, one of the doctors said.

Multiple doctors called on city leaders to act.

“It’s time to bring back the city-wide mask requirement and to encourage social distancing again in Anchorage,” said Dr. Tommy Hennessy, who is a medical doctor and a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Anchorage Health Department’s new Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Savitt provided a list of recommendations that include encouraging the public to get vaccinated, including those who have previously contracted the virus, masking in public indoor settings and social distancing.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has made it very clear he is against mandates, and Savitt has previously told Alaska’s News Source that he would not recommend to the mayor mandating health safety measures such as mask-wearing and capacity limitations.

Friday, assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia pressed Savitt, asking, “Regardless of the number of infections, the capacity of our hospitals, regardless of how high that gets, from your perspective, your office would not recommend any mandates at all? Is that correct?”

“That’s like a when did you stop beating your wife question,” Savitt responded.

“I don’t think it is,” Perez-Verdia said. “We’re trying to make good decisions based on good information. And I’m trying to make sure that I understand what information we need to make those decisions, but what I’m hearing from you is that it is in a place where it’s pretty serious. We’re facing a variant that is highly infectious, our hospitals are overwhelmed, yet and your recommendation is for us to strongly recommend for people to do these things. My question is, is there a point at which you would recommend that we as a body take action and actually put in place mandates? That’s my only question.”

“There could come a time, but I’m not sure right now when I would be able to say that,” Savitt responded.

Savitt said he believes health care providers and lawmakers should show more empathy for people who are hesitant to get vaccinated, hear their concerns and address them. He also predicted that once the Food and Drug Administration issues full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, a development expected to happen in weeks, more people will make the choice to get vaccinated.

Assembly members acknowledged they could circumvent the mayor and issue a temporary health mandate with nine votes, however, some assembly members said they believe that is a decision that should come from the mayor and that an assembly order is not likely to survive a mayoral veto.

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