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‘It’s a stressful time’: Juneau’s hospital at capacity for the first time during the pandemic

Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, Alaska on Sept. 28, 2021.
Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, Alaska on Sept. 28, 2021.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 4:23 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Bartlett Regional Medical Center in Juneau was at capacity on Friday for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are currently no plans to enable crisis standards of care.

“It’s a stressful time for hospital workers and physicians,” said Robert Barr, the city’s deputy manager. “With the way that our cases have been for the past couple of weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising if we saw that trend continue for a little bit.”

On Friday, only the mental health unit had space. A temporary wing used to isolate and treat COVID-19 with around 11 beds was opened and was full. Beds freed up over the weekend, but filled up again on Monday.

Kim McDowell, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, said capacity can change shift to shift and hour to hour. Staff are exhausted after more than 18 months treating COVID-19 patients.

“Every day, there’s no reprieve with the high patient volume over long periods of time,” she said.

The hospital, like others across Alaska, has faced staffing shortages, but McDowell said it’s still ready to serve Juneau residents’ emergency medical needs.

“That has not changed,” McDowell added.

Bartlett is the latest Alaska hospital to reach or exceed capacity during the pandemic and the ongoing delta variant surge. It is the biggest hospital in Southeast Alaska and often serves patients from across the region.

McDowell said out-of-state health care workers expected to come soon “would make a huge difference.”

Juneau has a face mask mandate and capacity restrictions in place at bars and restaurants. The Juneau Assembly will debate on Wednesday whether to extend virus mitigation efforts through next June.

The city has one of Alaska’s highest vaccination rates with over 81% of the eligible population considered fully vaccinated. Pfizer booster shots are now available across Alaska after they were approved last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use.

Barr said high case rates in Juneau would be straining Bartlett even more if the city’s vaccination rates were lower. He added that Juneau is following statewide trends that find the vast majority of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

McDowell agreed, saying at the hospital she sees that the vaccine is preventing serious, long-term illnesses.

”We see this over and over and over, the majority of patients we see that are really struggling, that are really having a hard time, are unvaccinated,” she said.

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