Providence wants city mask mandate as COVID-19 cases increase and hospital workers decrease

Published: Oct. 1, 2021 at 3:29 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Providence Alaska Medical Center supports a mask mandate in Anchorage. This week of the CEO of the hospital sent a letter to the Anchorage Assembly outlining the growing concerns the hospital is having as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on.

“Masking is effective. Social distancing is effective,” Preston Simmons wrote in the letter. “Washing our hands is effective. Vaccines are effective. Alaskans need to wear masks indoors and as CEO of Providence Alaska, I reiterate our support for any measures that result in the increased use of masks, including AO No. 2021-91.”

The assembly is considering an ordinance that would require people to wear masks indoors, in public spaces and outdoors in crowded areas to slow the transmission of COVID-19. The state’s rate of new cases per capita is the highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week tensions have been high at assembly meetings as a vocal crowd cheered and jeered at the assembly members regarding the mask mandate. At one meeting four people were arrested and people wore Holocaust symbols to protest the proposed mask mandate.

“Health care is often a calling, and many are called to work in this field by a desire to help heal the sick or care for the vulnerable,” Simmons wrote. “As we have faced wave after wave of COVID-19, caregivers are retiring and leaving health care at record rates.”

Simmons also wrote that the retirement rates at Providence are more than 19% higher than it was a year ago despite bonuses and other incentives.

“As we have faced wave after wave of COVID-19, caregivers are retiring and leaving health care at record rates,” Simmons wrote.

At one point, Mayor Dave Bronson has blamed the hospital for low staffing numbers because of a requirement for to be vaccinated, but Simmons wrote that as of Sept. 29, 84% of Providence Alaska caregivers are either vaccinated or have an approved medical or religious exemption.

“Contrary to rumors being promulgated by some in the community, Providence Alaska has not yet experienced staff leaving due to the requirement nor has any disciplinary action been taken in anticipation of the vaccine deadline,” Simmons wrote.

The hospital’s vaccination policy deadline is Oct. 18.

The increased stress has also added to burnout and anxiety among the staff, according to the hospital.

“I think this is the hardest time we’ve had in the entire pandemic, Renee Rafferty, who works in behavioral health at Providence, said during an interview Thursday afternoon. “I think we are focusing on talking with caregivers regularly about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through and it is a heartbreaking time and the stress associated with the community, their anger, with the frustration that people are feeling, and that adds to the burden that our care givers are experiencing.”

Adding to the stress is that family and friends of patients are not allowed inside the hospital, which means health care workers are the ones also helping patients with emotional support.

“One of the most painful things for caregivers, and for patients, is to not have the families present and to watch someone suffering and to know that you are the person in the room that can be there for them, but they can’t be there with their loved ones,” Rafferty said. “That psychological toll is challenging.”

Rafferty said the hospital is adding extra resources to help the staff to talk about their experiences in an attempt to release the stress.

Health care staffing is strained across Alaska and state officials signed a contract to bring in hundreds of temporary workers to help expand capacity in facilities statewide.

The assembly did not vote on the mask ordinance Thursday night and the public hearing has been continued into a fourth day at 5 p.m. on Monday in the assembly chambers.

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