Alaska hospitals ‘anxiously awaiting’ out-of-state health care workers as political process fails on COVID-19

The Alaska State Capitol.
The Alaska State Capitol.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 4:58 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s hospitals have been overwhelmed by an ongoing COVID-19 surge, but administrators won’t be looking for help from state political leaders, saying there’s no point.

“When the situation is this serious, there’s no time for theatrics,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association.

The major challenge facing hospitals is staffing.

Earlier in the month, the state of Alaska made an emergency request for over 470 out-of-state medical personnel, including for nurses and respiratory therapists. Gene Wiseman of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said on Thursday that a contract is “very, very, very close” to being finalized.

There remains no guarantee that the personnel request will be completely filled as has been seen in other states. Hospitals are “anxiously awaiting” to see how many people will come, when they’ll arrive and for how long, Kosin said.

Once that contract is secured, attention will quickly turn to logistics. Glenn Hoskinson, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, said licensing could be a challenge.

The state can issue “emergency courtesy licenses” during the pandemic for out-of-state health workers. Hoskinson said that should, in theory, only take a couple of days per license, but that could stretch into weeks if there is a rush of dozens or hundreds of applicants.

Despite the challenges facing the health care system, hospital administrators will not be looking for help from legislators, saying it’s too divisive.

“It’s not worth our time or energy to have people demonize getting vaccinated, undermine mitigation efforts and then try to dictate what a safe and accessible hospital environment should be,” Kosin said.

He sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Sept. 1, urging the governor to issue another disaster declaration. A chorus of left-leaning legislators joined that call, saying that was the quickest and most effective way to respond to the pandemic.

The Dunleavy administration argued a disaster declaration is a blunt tool and is unnecessary with the vaccine readily available. The governor’s office said on Thursday that another disaster declaration will not be issued, nor will any new statewide mandates.

On Tuesday, Dunleavy strongly urged everyone to get vaccinated before posting to social media that he would also “ferociously defend the fundamental rights of all Alaskans.” The Alaska attorney general joined 23 other states on Thursday in calling on President Joe Biden to reverse course on his vaccine mandate executive order.

Alaska will continue to vigorously fight the COVID-19 virus on many fronts. However, my Administration will likewise ferociously defend the fundamental rights of every Alaskan.

Posted by Governor Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Alaska ranks 34th in the nation, according to its vaccination rate. The delta variant has seen the state’s largest hospital start rationing care and other hospitals are similarly strained.

“Alaska is experiencing one of the sharpest surges of COVID-19 in the country right now,” said State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin on Thursday. It’s unclear when cases might start leveling off, officials added.

Instead of issuing a disaster declaration, Dunleavy added two bills to the third special session agenda, but neither of them passed. The partisan push and pull over individual rights, vaccine mandates and mitigation efforts hamstrung the Legislature.

A bill to temporarily expand telehealth became a battle over vaccine mandates and hospital visitation policies.

Some legislators said a support person is needed in hospitals on compassionate grounds so no one is alone when they’re vulnerable or dying. Others said limiting visitors is an important mitigation tool and that those rules are set out in federal law.

Hospital administrators said the bill needed to be blocked as amended because it would do more harm than good.

Another bill stalled that would have seen Alaska permanently join a multistate nurse’s coalition that advocates said would streamline licensing. Critics said it would hamper Alaska’s ability to regulate nursing.

Kosin said those bills would only “marginally” have helped hospitals, but that administrators are in daily, productive discussions with the state health department to come up with creative solutions to help curb the delta variant surge. A new disaster declaration and a legislative fix are not being requested.

“We’ve made the ask, it’s not worth doing it again,” Kosin added.

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