Staffing issues due to omicron variant add to woes for most hospitals around Alaska

Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 9:26 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread through Alaska, COVID-19 hospitalizations are climbing at the same time that scores of health care workers are calling out due to being sick or exposed. The result is that ICU bed capacity is becoming limited in the state once more.

Mary Meachem of Eagle River headed into surgery Tuesday as she seeks a cure to what’s causing her severe headaches.

“The way it’s explained to me is basically I have no spinal fluid around my brain,” Meachem said.

Doctors will replace a faulty shunt. The operation will take place at Alaska Regional Hospital, but that’s not where Meachem planned to have it performed.

Providence Alaska Medical Center had been originally scheduled for the operation Monday. However, Meachem said she learned of the postponement the previous Friday.

“I was upset,” she said. “There’s days where I cannot even get out of bed.”

Ongoing staffing issues forced the temporary postponement of elective surgeries, such as Meachem’s, according to Mikal Canfield, spokesperson for Providence Alaska Medical Center. Elective surgeries were temporarily postponed for both Monday and Tuesday this week, Canfield said in an email.

He said that Providence has been averaging 80-100 staff members out each day over the last two weeks.

“Caregivers have been unable to work due to being exposed and needing to quarantine, caregivers with symptoms, caregivers waiting to be cleared to return to work, and caregivers who have tested positive for COVID-19,” Canfield wrote.

On both Monday and Tuesday, Providence had no ICU beds available.

That’s not an issue limited to Providence. The state’s hospital data dashboard on Monday showed just six adult ICU beds left open in Anchorage.

“The real limiting factor here are the staff call outs,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “And that is across full facility operations, both critical and non-critical.”

At Alaska Native Medical Center, spokesperson Shirley Young said via email that there are close to 300 employees currently on the hospital’s COVID-19 tracking grid who are at varying levels of recovery. Young said about 100 staff members are not yet cleared to return to work.

“In general, the hospital remains at or near capacity regularly and have to come off and on recovery or closure to certain types of patients, based on our capacity and available staff,” Young wrote.

She said that as of Tuesday morning, Alaska Native Medical Center has a few ICU beds left open, “but as you know, that changes many times throughout the day.” Young said so far, postponement of patient procedures has been limited to those who test positive for COVID-19.

At Alaska Regional Hospital, the ICU remains “busy” but open, according to spokesperson Kjerstin Lastufka. She said via email that the hospital has enough caregivers and is monitoring the situation. Alaska Regional is not rescheduling or postponing surgeries at this time, Lastufka said, though she did note that the hospital is also seeing an increase in the number of staff that are calling in sick.

“My insurance is not in network with Alaska Regional,” said Meachem, who added she will have to pay more for the surgery, giving her another headache to handle.

Earlier this week, the state recorded 139 people being hospitalized with COVID-19 across Alaska.

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