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Has Alaska’s record COVID-19 surge peaked? Health officials say we’ll know more next week

Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 3:49 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - There are signs Alaska’s unprecedented COVID-19 case surge could be leveling off and hospitalizations have dropped from record highs last month.

“I think that we’ll have a much better answer next week in respect to the trajectory,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist.

Most boroughs and census areas are far above the “high” alert level for new cases and there are significant regional outbreaks, but cases over the past seven days are down statewide by 32% from a record set the previous week.

McLaughlin discussed data on Wednesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It shows that Alaska still has the highest new virus case rate in the United States over the past seven days, a rate that’s around four times higher than the national average.

The state’s test positivity rate is also high. It’s almost double the threshold figure of 5% the World Health Organization uses to determine when an area has a handle on community transmission.

“We are definitely not doing enough testing right now,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, on Thursday.

She spoke about the cautious optimism that health officials are feeling about case rates, but that there is still “a lot of COVID” in the community. Cases could shoot up again if Alaskans do not follow mitigation efforts like wearing face masks and avoiding crowded indoor gatherings, Zink added.

She urged Alaskans to get vaccinated, saying that is the best virus prevention tool, as the state’s vaccination rate sits below the national average.

Hospital leaders are very cautiously optimistic, but say there’s still a long way to go before pressure eases on the state’s health care system.

“The number of hospitalizations have only been down for three days, I think it’s a little too early to say it’s a trend,” said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president at the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association. “I think we hope it’s a trend because hospitals are still seeing a steady stream of COVID-positive patients in the emergency department and new admissions.”

Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Native Medical Center are both reporting fewer COVID-19 patients arriving for treatment than in September, but they are still coming.

For weeks, ANMC had been treating more than 30 COVID-19 patients each day. Dr. Bob Onders, the hospital’s chief administrator, said there were 17 positive patients in their infectious period hospitalized on Tuesday.

“The number has decreased relatively rapidly over the past week which is very good,” he said.

There were three critical care unit beds available on Tuesday morning, he added, but capacity can fluctuate rapidly. Help from Outside is making a difference.

The hospital, which is operating under crisis standards of care, has seen an influx of 40 out-of-state nurses and 10 certified nursing assistants alongside 35 personnel who have come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That has helped treatment of COVID-19 patients and increased staff-to-patient ratios.

Zink said on Thursday that 422 health care workers have arrived from the Lower 48 and 330 have been deployed across the state.

“It’s a palpable, noticeable difference in our hospitals right now,” she added before stressing “that we’re not out of the woods.”

Monk agreed, saying she was on a call with Alaska’s hospital administrators on Wednesday.

“For the first time in many weeks, I heard hope in the voices of hospital leaders as they were talking about the new relief workers,” she said.

Onders stressed that widespread community transmission is still a big concern. Three critical care nurses couldn’t work recently “because the daycare here on campus closed down because children were positive.”

At Providence, Alaska’s largest hospital, there were some free critical care beds earlier in the week. That could see patients transferred to the hospital more easily from rural Alaska.

Providence has been rationing care with overwhelmed resources. Due to an increased number of high-acuity patients, administrators upped the surge level last Friday.

“Each surge level builds on the previous one to care for our patients in the safest way possible,” said Mikal Canfield, a spokesperson for Providence, on Thursday.

The major changes by that increased surge level have included:

• Providence extended the limitation of non-urgent surgeries requiring ICU-level care until Oct. 11

• The Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) is now a potential COVID-treatment unit;

• For non-infectious patients, putting two patients in a room when feasible; and

• Utilize transfers to St. Elias Specialty Hospital and other partner facilities.

Pressure on the hospital has eased since last Friday, but Providence will remain in Surge Level 4 until case counts decrease and operational changes are no longer required, Canfield said.

Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence’s chief medical officer, was hopeful on Tuesday about Alaska’s declining case rates. He summed up a general feeling across the health care system on the question of whether the state’s surge has peaked.

“We are being cautious in that interpretation,” Bernstein said.

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