Alaska reports more than 1,000 new COVID cases; Bethel hospital enacts crisis care standards

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 4:00 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Another hospital announced it is operating under crisis standards of care on Wednesday as Alaska reported another roughly 1,000 COVID-19 cases as it continues its upward surge in infections.

The state also reported four additional Alaska resident deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday. Since the pandemic began in Alaska, 546 residents and 21 nonresidents have died with COVID-19.

Alaska currently has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That fact was reiterated Wednesday by Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, during a media availability with reporters.

Cases in the U.S. as a whole appear to have peaked, McLaughlin reported during the virtual meeting Wednesday, and are now declining. Alaska, on the other hand, is one of four jurisdictions, according to the CDC, that is still in an upward trajectory, he said.

“Alaska is leading the pack unfortunately right now,” McLaughlin said. “Our incidence rate is the highest in the nation by a large margin.”

The national average is 34 cases per 100,000, McLaughlin reported. Alaska’s average rate on Wednesday is 176 cases per 100,000.

“We are definitely in a steep, steep upward trajectory,” McLaughlin said.

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., which serves 58 rural communities in the YK-Delta region and has a regional hospital in Bethel, became the latest health care system to enact crisis standards of care this week. The corporation announced Wednesday that it had activated its COVID-19 Clinical Guidelines.

According to the release, these guidelines will provide staff with revised standards of care when working under “conventional, contingency or crisis capacity.” They include the activation of a committee to help guide clinical decisions.

“Currently operating at-capacity, YKHC’s capacity is highly fluid and can change day-to-day or hour-by-hour depending on the number of admitted patients, their acuity, or availability of resources at referring hospitals,” the release states.

Under these standards of care, when the health system is operating at the contingency or crisis levels of capacity, local patients might see delayed transfers to a different hospital, larger nurse-to-patient ratios and longer wait times for elective procedures, the release stated. Decisions about whether to continue elective procedures will be assessed and made on a weekly or daily basis.

“YKHC has done everything in our power to delay the activation of these guidelines,” said President and CEO Dan Winkelman in the press release. “We urge every resident of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region to get vaccinated, wear a mask in indoor public areas, and social distance. With our hospital and our referral hospitals at capacity, this is our last stand against this virus.”

Alaska’s current surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, driven largely by the highly contagious delta variant, shows no signs of slowing down. Top state health officials have warned that daily case counts will remain high as the state works through a data backlog and posts updates that are a mix of old and new cases.

However, the reported COVID-19 hospitalizations are not a result of the data backlog, and those also remain high and continue to strain hospitals. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ hospital data dashboard shows that, as of Tuesday, there were 207 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide. Thirty-nine people, both COVID-positive and those suspected of having the virus, are on ventilators.

The data show that as of Tuesday, there were just four adult ICU beds left available in Anchorage and 22 left open statewide.

The state reported 1,009 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. Of those, 976 are among Alaska residents.

The delta variant remains a large factor in the rise of new cases. The most recent situation report from the Alaska Sequencing Consortium shows that 97% of Alaska COVID-19 cases sequenced the week beginning Aug. 22 were the delta variant.

Though the number of vaccine breakthrough cases of COVID-19 occurring in people who are already vaccinated are growing, the majority of cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Alaska are still among people who are unvaccinated. A July report from the state Section of Epidemiology shows that close to 80% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in the month of July were among people who weren’t vaccinated.

According to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard, 60% of Alaska’s eligible population of people 12 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The data show just over 63% have gotten an initial dose of a vaccine.

The City and Borough of Juneau remains one of the most vaccinated regions in the state, with 80% of its eligible population fully vaccinated. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, at 49.9%, and the Matanuska Susitna Borough, at 41.6%, remain two of the least vaccinated major regions in the state.

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