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‘It’s not about me’: Unvaccinated COVID-19 patient changes mind as hospitals near breaking point

Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 3:02 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2021 at 4:30 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As Alaska hits 100,000 total statewide COVID-19 cases, Anchorage’s hospitals, which serve patients from across the state, are begging for relief as the number of COVID-19 positive patients rises. Some unvaccinated COVID-19 patients are warning others of the impacts of the disease.

Thursday, Alaska’s News Source spoke with a Providence Alaska Medical Center physician, and one of her patients recovering from a COVID-19 infection.

Pablo Diaz-Fontao was Dr. Leslie Gonsette’s only recovering patient on Thursday, the physician said. Two of her patients had been upgraded to the ICU and been intubated, a third was dying, and the two patients who moved to the ICU were immediately replaced with patients from the emergency room, one just 32 years old, she said.

Diaz-Fontao had been in the hospital for six days, Gonsette said. Just hours before the interview, he’d been removed from a high-pressure nasal tube, to a regular oxygen tube, she said.

He arrived in the United States in 1982 on a raft from Cuba — spending 14 days on the ocean fleeing the Communist regime. He says his aversion to the government telling him what to do partly led to his avoidance of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I live in the country of freedom,” Diaz-Fontao said in a zoom call with reporters from across Alaska. “Nobody tells me what I’m doing with my life or my body. I’m making this decision about what I do with my life. I make a decision voluntarily.”

Also contributing to his hesitancy was the belief that he was healthy, and strong enough to fight the virus on his own. The 56-year-old said he’s worked for Alaska Airlines for 18 years. He says he works hard, doesn’t smoke, eats healthy foods, and makes a point to go walking. Diaz-Fontao had no previous medical conditions, he said. Still, the virus hit him, hard.

“The virus is not playing with anyone, not playing with life,” Diaz-Fontao reporters.

Despite his previous hesitancy, Diaz-Fontao said he regretted not getting the vaccine earlier. He received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on the Zoom call, emphasizing that he was doing so voluntarily, and not under any mandate.

“Now, when I see the situation, I say, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about the people around to me,’” he said, acknowledging that his immune system was now stronger after fighting the virus, but that he still wanted more antibodies. “The vaccine is helping you more a little bit more and making you more stronger.”

Diaz-Fontao was one of the lucky ones. On Friday, his seventh day in the hospital, he was discharged to go home to his family, with three liters of oxygen. The same day, the state recorded another COVID-19 death, for a total of 454 resident deaths.

His decision to get vaccinated was somewhat bittersweet for Gonsette.

“I’m happy to see that people are finally getting vaccinated,” she said, “but it’s sad it has to happen once you see me in this hazmat suit.”

Gonsette is one of a number of Providence medical professionals who testified and stood in front of the Anchorage Assembly Tuesday night, calling attention to the overload on hospitals, as Providence’s medical committee instituted a crisis level of care this week.

Gonsette was part of a presentation on behalf of the municipality’s public health committee, and while dozens of health professionals stood in support of the statement sharing what’s happening in the city’s hospitals, others heckled the group of medical professionals, criticizing how much time they had taken of the public participation portion of the meeting.

Members of the public are limited to three minutes of public testimony. Members of city commissions, community councils and other formal groups get five minutes. Both types of speakers are allowed additional time if assembly members have questions. Assembly members asked a number of questions of the group Tuesday night.

Gonsette described to the assembly conversations she has with intensive care unit staff about her patients, including immediately preceding her testimony.

“Before walking through these doors I was on the phone with one of my nurses, who was telling me, ‘Your patient is critical.’” Gonsette told the assembly on Tuesday. “I called my colleagues in the ICU and I explained my patient is going to probably die, I need an ICU bed, and the answer I got was, ‘We are doing our best; we do not have a bed.’ This is what is happening every day, (and) this person doesn’t even have COVID.”

At the Alaska Native Medical Center, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Holly Alfrey said while the hospital has not officially declared crisis care standards, the hospital is “on the brink,” and the critical care unit is pretty much at that level.

Things at the hospital are “very tense, and they’re getting more intense daily,” Alfrey said Friday morning. “Every single ICU bed is full, every single (Emergency Department) bed is full, we’re holding people in the ED, our floors are full. We are just almost completely at capacity.”

Alfrey said hospital staff have been creative in finding space and ways to care for patients. The hospital also receives additional staff from the Indian Health Service, and has hired travelers to assist. She also plans to be at the table when the state’s contract for outside health workers becomes finalized. State health officials said Thursday in a media call that the contractor had been selected and that so far, everything was running “on time” for workers to be in Alaska the week of Sept. 27.

But even with an abundance of staff, Alfrey worries it may not be enough.

“We’re getting to this place where we almost have no beds, even if we had all the people in the world, so it’s quite challenging,” she said.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where she still works as an emergency room doctor, the intensive care unit was over-full. The ICU has 14 beds there, she said, but was at times caring for 20 intensive care patients. Alan Craft, a spokesperson for the hospital, said on Friday that the unit had 22 patients for three days earlier this week — now the count is back down in the teens.

As of Friday, the hospital had 42 COVID-positive patients admitted. They constituted 44% of the 95 total patients at the facility. Statewide, the number of COVID-19 patients is closer to 20% of total hospitalizations.

“To have 20% of your hospital filled of any one disease or ailment is a big deal,” Zink said Thursday. “We don’t get 20% of our hospitals full of heart attacks or even traumas. This is a lot to have of any one thing.”

COVID-19 patients require more care from nurses than patients usually do, another strain on hospitals.

Both Alfrey and Gonsette belabored the impact the load of patients is having on hospitals — both providers and patients.

“If the hospitals are overwhelmed, if resources are at a minimum, if staff are being pulled and we do not have sufficient manpower, it affects all of us,” Gonsette said Thursday. “Because if you need the services that are strained, it will affect you if you get in a car wreck, it will affect your child if your child falls off their bike and breaks an arm, it’ll affect you if you have a heart attack and need an open bypass, which is happening every day. We see it. We see people having to wait for critical services.”

She emphasized that health care workers are tired. They’re burned out and working hard, feeling like there’s little recognition outside the hospital, more than a year after citizens were writing signs of support, delivering cookies and pizzas, and holding rallies to support the front line “heroes”.

She described the disconnect between the world she experiences inside the hospital and outside society as being in an alternate universe.

“When we work within these walls, when we work here in the hospital, we are united,” Gonsette said. “We are family. We are there to lean on each other. But when we leave the hospital, it is an alternate universe when we go to the store, when we hear friends hanging out, living their lives. We are scared for them, we are scared for our children.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Zink.

“Health care providers are exhausted,” Zink said in the media availability Thursday. “I’ve seen three of my favorite nurses quit in the last month because they’re just tired, they’re burnt out and they’re ready for something else and there’s only so long they can sustain this overall.”

“It feels like World War III,” Gonsette said, describing a microscopic, invisible enemy that’s everywhere. “Imagine, if they were amplified 100 times, how different people would react, and how we would actually see the enemy.”

The best way to win the war, health providers say, is to consider being vaccinated, wear a mask and social distance.

“A lot of people are forever going to have problems and damage to their body organs because of this virus,” Alfrey said, suggesting people do their research on the statistics around vaccination and COVID-19 hospitalizations. “And then some people, of course will die. So if you’re not going to get vaccinated, ask yourself why? And if you’re not going to get vaccinated, wear a mask, stay socially distant from people — it’s critical. We’re never going to get through this pandemic if people don’t behave responsibly.”

There is a rally being held for health care workers at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18 outside the Alaska Native Medical Center.

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

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