The state’s data on COVID-19 patients who are currently hospitalized represents a crucial metric for the public to gauge the spread of the virus and how sick it’s making people.
This week, that data looked pretty good.
But the data, at least for a few days, was wrong.
Even as new daily case counts topped 200 and emergency room physicians said hospitals might be reaching a tipping point, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' COVID-19 dashboard for two days reported the number of COVID-positive patients in hospitals in the low 40s, about average for levels since August.
As of Thursday, the true number was 59, according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association — the highest since the start of the pandemic.
“Things are just starting to climb up," said association president and CEO Jared Kosin. "It’s very concerning.”
Accurate hospitalization numbers are important, Kosin said, because such noticeable increases means the swelling case numbers are translating to more severe illness.
“We think it’s important that everyone is aware that there is a meaningful impact here on health care capacity and we’re seeing it play out each day now,” he said.
The state dashboard was updated with the correct number as of about noon Friday after Kosin reached out to state data analysts. He was following up on a request from Anchorage Daily News. It wasn’t clear if the state had also noticed the problem. (On Saturday, the state health department reported a record 355 new virus cases, and 58 COVID-positive patients in the hospital.)
Alaska isn’t alone. The COVID Tracking Project reported this week that a number of states are experiencing problems with currently hospitalized numbers due to issues with the portal used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for collecting daily hospitalizations around the country.
Kosin said the glitch in Alaska’s data was apparently the result of an error that occurred when the data was fed into the dashboard. Hospitals here started reporting to the federal government in late September, and that process has been challenging ever since, he said.
The state’s COVID-19 dashboard for several days has listed 0 people hospitalized with pending COVID-19 test results after those numbers last week climbed into the 20s. It wasn’t clear why that data was apparently not available.
A state data team member did not immediately respond to an email asking for clarification.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a recent online briefing warned Alaskans to continue practicing mask wearing and social distancing to stop the spread of the highly infectious virus. But Dunleavy also reassured the public that “steady” hospitalization rates meant the virus wasn’t threatening to overrun the state’s health care system.
Asked Friday about the discrepancy and whether it changed his perspective, Dunleavy in an interview said he also looks at hospital bed and specifically ICU capacity on a regular basis.
“We’re keeping an eye on the capacity,” he said. “We’re constantly looking at the numbers but right now it appears to us that the bed capacity is within acceptable parameters.”
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said she got an email from the data team Friday morning that said the numbers were “off by just a couple cases" because of a glitch in coding for pediatric hospitalizations. The COVID-confirmed hospital numbers “have been accurate with some very small discrepancies in the last couple of days which have been caught and addressed immediately,” Zink said, reading from the email.
The pediatric bed issue was definitely part of the problem, Kosin said.
Alaska has reported newly diagnosed coronavirus cases in the triple digits for about a month straight.
Anchorage health officials reported Friday that hospitalizations in the municipality certainly increased this week to a daily average of 29 COVID-positive patients plus another 16 people waiting on test results to see if they test positive.
Doctors in Alaska’s emergency departments say it feels like hospitals are bumping up against their limits at a time when hospitals are already running close to capacity and dealing with staffing issues.
They’re seeing more COVID-19 patients — one said they made up a third of the people he saw in one recent shift — but have less capacity to handle them given the usual levels of other diseases like strokes and heart attacks. More patients are being held in the ER because ICU beds aren’t available, they say. COVID-19 patients take more time to treat because of all the protective gear needed to treat them. They can take longer to recover, and require limited critical care services for more time.
Dunleavy noted at his most recent press conference that the state’s average time that COVID-19 patients spend in the hospital has gotten shorter since the pandemic’s start in March.
That’s an important point, Kosin said.
Still, if hospital admissions “start massing together and then roll into the system at the same time, length of stay is not going to be enough to get through that,” he said. “You’re going to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume.”
Daily News reporter Annie Berman contributed to this story.