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‘Our ability to respond is getting strangled’: Alaska surpasses 200 COVID hospitalizations

Coronavirus
Coronavirus(WVLT)
Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 3:01 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 9, 2021 at 10:15 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska has surpassed 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations, setting yet another record high since the coronavirus pandemic began in the state.

The state’s hospital data dashboard on Thursday showed that, as of Wednesday, there were 206 people being hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, the highest number at any one time in the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalizations have been steadily growing, from about 150 in late August to 197 on Wednesday after they spiked over the Labor Day weekend.

Data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services show there are 29 people across the state now on ventilators. The hospital dashboard shows that as of Wednesday, there were seven adult ICU beds left open in Anchorage and 21 still available statewide. About 21% of all people hospitalized in Alaska right now have COVID-19.

Also on Thursday, the state reported 846 new COVID-19 infections, 809 of which are among Alaska residents.

Alaska hospitals have been operating at or near capacity for weeks as increases in COVID-19 cases strains the state’s health care system. Some hospitals, like Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, often operate over capacity. The hospital reported Wednesday that it was at 110% capacity.

This week, Providence Alaska Medical Center joined several other hospitals in restricting its visitation policy due to the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases.

In a virtual press availability with reporters, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that on Thursday, statewide hospital capacity moved into the high alert level, “just given the number of hospitals that have been in divert, have been unable to accept additional patients.”

Zink said that hospital emergency departments remain open for life-sustaining treatment, “but they are very tight.” She urged Alaskans to utilize other health services, such as urgent care, to help relieve pressure on hospitals.

Hospital administrators have been asking for help, both from the public and from state government leaders. They described the desperate situation currently being faced inside hospitals to a House of Representatives committee earlier this month, while Gov. Mike Dunleavy added bills to the current special session, one of which would make permanent changes for licensing of nurses, having Alaska join a multistate nurses coalition.

Dunleavy also announced efforts in August to expedite the process for health care workers to become licensed to work in Alaska.

Others are calling for another disaster declaration, saying those steps don’t go far enough. In a letter to Dunleavy earlier this month, Jared Kosin, the head of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, wrote that “Alaska’s health care system is in crisis and we need action now, especially if the surge gets worse over the coming days and weeks.”

On Thursday, Kosin said surpassing 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations represents another point of the pandemic in Alaska, and that it’s becoming increasingly hard for the state’s health care workers to deliver quality care throughout the system. Kosin said one of the hardest things is comparing the present day to Alaska’s last COVID-19 peak in December 2020, when more than 60% of COVID-19 hospitalizations were concentrated in Anchorage facilities.

Now, he said, just over 50% of those hospitalizations are located in Anchorage, which means more COVID-19 patients are now spread out across other hospitals in the state system, in places in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula. With those smaller hospitals starting to fill up, too, it makes it harder to find places to transfer patients, especially from rural areas, Kosin said.

“It just complicates our ability to deliver care throughout the system,” he said. " ... our ability to respond is getting strangled essentially.”

Kosin said members of the health care sector still have hope, but the current mentality among state facilities is to prepare for the worst case scenario. Health care workers still don’t know whether Alaska has reached its peak in this surge, or whether things will continue to get worse.

That mentality weighs on the health care workers taking care of Alaskans, according to Kosin.

“I think caregivers on the front lines, to say they’re burned out doesn’t even do it justice,” he said, explaining that facilities are reporting some of their staff are in counseling. “... I think what they’re being asked to do and what they’re seeing is highly traumatic, because at the end of the day this is all preventable.”

It all comes down to the vaccine, Kosin said.

The state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that as of Thursday, 56% of all eligible Alaskans age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and that 61.5% have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Kosin said Alaska hospitals are looking at other states in the Lower 48 that are starting to reach a point where they have to ration care.

“It’s unnerving and it’s almost incomprehensible,” he said.

The health care system Alaskans have come to rely on is on the brink, Kosin said, and the more pressure that’s put on it “is going to put us in a darker place.” When considering health care systems, Kosin said he doesn’t think they “collapse.” Rather, the standards of care for patients “shift to a really scary scenario,” he said.

Unless Alaska catches a break with the acceleration rate of its current COVID-19 surge, or until people take action by getting vaccinated and taking other mitigation measures such as masking, Kosin said the state’s hospitals are preparing themselves to start seeing those kinds of patient care decisions be made.

Of the 846 new COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, 809 of them were among Alaska residents of the following communities:

  • Anchorage: 258
  • Wasilla: 89
  • Fairbanks: 59
  • Palmer: 46
  • Bethel Census Area: 42
  • Utqiagvik: 28
  • Eagle River: 26
  • Juneau: 23
  • Ketchikan: 22
  • Kodiak: 22
  • Kenai: 21
  • North Pole: 17
  • Chugiak: 14
  • Soldotna: 14
  • Bethel: 11
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough: 10
  • Dillingham Census Area: 9
  • Kusilvak Census Area: 9
  • Homer: 8
  • Delta Junction: 7
  • Big Lake: 6
  • Copper River Census Area: 6
  • Willow: 6
  • Dillingham: 5
  • Unalaska: 5
  • Douglas: 4
  • Southeast Fairbanks Census Area: 4
  • Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area: 4
  • Matanuska-Susitna Borough: 3
  • Northwest Arctic Borough: 3
  • Anchor Point: 2
  • Cordova: 2
  • Girdwood: 2
  • Hooper Bay: 2
  • Houston: 2
  • Kodiak Island Borough: 2
  • North Slope Borough: 2
  • Sitka: 2
  • Sutton-Alpine: 2
  • Valdez: 2
  • Aleutians East Borough: 1
  • Aleutians West Census Area: 1
  • Chugach Census Area: 1
  • Craig: 1
  • Haines: 1
  • Kotzebue: 1
  • Nikiski: 1
  • Sterling: 1

The state also reported 37 additional nonresident COVID-19 cases throughout the state on Thursday.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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