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Alaska requests 473 out-of-state health care workers as COVID-19 strains hospitals

The seal of the state of Alaska.
The seal of the state of Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 8:11 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Facing record COVID-19 hospitalizations and a health care system close to breaking point, the state of Alaska has requested that 473 out-of-state medical personnel come and help.

The state is asking for nurses, patient care technicians, respiratory therapists and other health care workers. There is no guarantee that Alaska will receive all the personnel it is requesting, said Elizabeth Manning, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Gene Wiseman, an emergency program manager from the same department, said the request was formally made on Friday. There is a 10-day limit to respond from four medical staffing companies that serve Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

State health departments from Idaho and Oregon have made similar requests from the federal government. There is a nationwide hospital staffing shortage with the delta variant surging and the COVID-19 pandemic straining health care systems for over 18 months.

Multiple states have activated the National Guard to help with overwhelmed hospitals. Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said there are no plans to do that in Alaska.

The emergency procurement request for out-of-state medical personnel was submitted through a federal agency. It was made possible through a state COVID-19 bill that was signed into law in April, Manning said.

But there could be challenges with licensing.

Since the end of last year, out-of-state nurses, physicians and other health care workers can get “emergency courtesy licenses” to practice in Alaska during the pandemic. Glenn Hoskinson, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, said that should help.

“Assuming a license is complete and correct, it only takes a couple of days to get issued,” she added. “However, if we get hundreds of those at once, it would take weeks because we don’t have the capacity.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has been advocating for legislation he introduced in February that would see Alaska permanently join a multistate nurse’s coalition. That bill failed to pass from a Senate committee in April.

Advocates of that coalition say it would streamline the licensing process for out-of-state nurses. Critics have raised concerns over what it would mean for the state’s ability to regulate nursing.

Late last week, legislators heard emotional testimony from Alaska hospital administrators. They spoke about strained and exhausted staff and a system in crisis.

The largely Democratic House majority coalition asked that the governor issue another 30-day disaster declaration to curb the COVID-19 case surge. On Friday, Dunleavy wrote back, saying that was unnecessary and only a few, specific legislative tools are needed to respond to the pandemic.

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