Alaska News

Coronavirus Q&A: How full are Anchorage hospitals? Should vaccinated Alaskans do anything differently as cases rise?

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After months of declining COVID-19 case counts, a highly contagious variant is responsible for rising cases and hospitalizations over the last few weeks nationwide — including in Alaska.

We’re continuing to address reader questions about hospital capacity, when you should get tested if you’re vaccinated and how local health officials are responding to the latest surge. What do you want to know about COVID-19 in Alaska? Let us know in the form at the bottom of this story.

[‘This is not the same virus’: A new resurgence of COVID-19 shutters Cordova seafood plant]

For the past week, the state’s hospital monitoring dashboard has been showing most Anchorage hospitals very full or close to capacity. What does that mean — are they really that full?

For the past few weeks, the state’s hospital status monitoring dashboard has been showing most of Anchorage’s hospitals labeled “full” or “at capacity” — but that doesn’t tell the whole story, and it doesn’t mean that those hospitals aren’t able to accept patients, health officials say.

The state hospital dashboard has been used primarily by hospitals for years to communicate with one another about bed availability and each facility’s capacity to accept transfers, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, during a call with reporters this week.

“So this (dashboard) is just a tool to make it easier and faster for clinicians on the frontline to be able to know kind of the capacity of different hospitals,” she said.

Another consideration is that the hospital monitoring dashboard is not always up to date, said Esther Pitts, the Service Operations Center director at Providence Alaska Medical Center, who helps oversee transfers between hospitals. That’s why the dashboard is seen less as a precise measure and more as a way to take a broad look at hospital capacity, she said.

“It’s a good starting place,” she said. She said she and others are continuing to follow this indicator closely as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.

Over the last 10 days, as COVID-19 hospitalizations have started to climb again, spokespersons from Providence and the Alaska Native Medical Center said their hospitals have been running close to full capacity. But they also said that’s typical for this time of year — and the hospitals are managing, and are not yet at a critical point.

That’s because when all the hospitals in Anchorage start to fill up, they take turns accepting patients and are in regular communication with one another to make sure patients have a place to go.

“We have what we call ‘surge capacity’ that we can can turn on, and other things we can do to control the influx,” said Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence’s chief medical officer. “We have these surge plans that we developed last year to open additional spaces in our facilities if we need to.”

Hospitals’ busyness over the past few weeks is relatively typical for this time of year, said Anna Frick, an epidemiologist with the state health department who tracks infectious diseases and emergency room visits across the state.

“In summer, our population gets bigger about our hospitals do not grow magically. And so we have more people who are here who need health care, and people outside doing things, getting into kayaking, accidents, et cetera,” Frick said.

Hospital staffing problems have also exacerbated the strain hospitals are feeling right now, Zink added.

“Alaska has a limited health care infrastructure,” she said. “And that has become very challenged and stressed during the pandemic for numerous reasons. ... I think this has been exhausting for all of us. And seeing a fourth wave is a little demoralizing, honestly. And I think we’re seeing a lot of health care workers making decisions on career choice, which is also impacting our capacity.”

I’m fully vaccinated. When would I need to get tested, quarantine or isolate?

Regardless of vaccination status, anyone who has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, no matter how mild — including a runny nose, low-grade fever or a sore throat — should get tested, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s top epidemiologist.

If that result comes back positive, an isolation period of 10 days is recommended. “And that includes people who are fully vaccinated,” McLaughlin said.

A fully vaccinated person who has been exposed to someone with confirmed or possible COVID-19 doesn’t need to test or quarantine as long as they don’t have any symptoms, he added.

“But if you’re not vaccinated, and you’ve been exposed, you do need to quarantine,” he said. “It’s still a 14-day quarantine. And we recommend getting tested at some point during your quarantine, so usually between about days five and seven after exposure.”

Given the rise in cases, should vaccinated people consider wearing masks indoors again? What do local officials say?

In Juneau, city officials have responded to rising case counts by asking residents to mask up indoors, whether or not they’re vaccinated — and are even requiring masks in city facilities. In Cordova, a recent outbreak among dozens of seafood workers and community members has resulted in a mask mandate for city workers.

[Juneau will enact limits on gatherings, gyms and indoor bar service due to COVID-19 spread]

Anchorage likely will not issue any further recommendations around mask-wearing, said David Morgan, the recently appointed director of the Anchorage Health Department. That decision will be left up to the individual, he said during an interview Thursday.

“If you want to wear a mask, that’s fine. If you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s fine,” he said. “Some people wear a tie and a suit to work, like I do, and some don’t.”

McLaughlin added that state health guidance hasn’t changed with respect to what fully vaccinated people can do, despite the rise in cases and the more contagious delta variant now circulating.

“It really comes down to the individual in their own risk tolerance, and maybe taking a look at their own underlying medical conditions and their age to help to help decide what is the best course of action for them with respect to masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds,” McLaughlin said.

In a tweet, Zink encouraged Alaskans to “be careful,” noting that she was back to eating at outdoor restaurants only and masking up indoors, even though she is fully vaccinated.

“The vaccine protects me well, but it is not 100%,” she said.

The vast majority of Alaska’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among people who are unvaccinated.



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