A continued spike in virus-related hospitalizations is causing particular worry among Alaska’s hospital administrators. They say the state could be headed for a surge in hospital admissions that threatens Alaska’s fragile health care network.
“Right now, based on the trends we’re seeing, the likelihood of a significant COVID surge is increasing by the day,” Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said Monday. “And our health care system is in a far more fragile state than it was a year ago. We’re extremely concerned.”
On Monday, Alaska reported 562 cases over three days, no new deaths, and a current tally of 96 COVID-19-related hospitalizations statewide — a sharp increase from 80 on Friday and 70 last Wednesday. In the second half of June, that number hovered between 10 and 19.
So far, the vast majority among Alaska’s COVID-related hospitalizations have been among people who are not vaccinated.
Kosin said that while COVID-19 hospitalizations still account for less than 10% of total occupied beds in Alaska hospitals, the continued and sharp upward trend of Alaska’s current COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have become a “looming threat” for a health care system that is already stretched thin.
Staff burnout and elevated levels of non-COVID, trauma-related hospitalizations that typically occur in the summertime mean “there’s not the capacity right now where we can absorb (a surge) without extreme challenges,” Kosin explained.
He said that while hospitals are not yet a critical point, if hospitalizations continue to rise at the current rate, that could change.
“It feels more real now than it has in a long time,” Kosin said. “We’re doing everything we can internally to relieve pressure and keep up with demand.”
Kosin said despite the strain hospitals are feeling, Alaskans should never delay seeking hospital care out of concern for capacity. Alaska’s hospitals do have backup plans in place if the situation worsens, he said.
“You go to your ‘disaster mode,’ " he said. “That means using space in the hospital that may not be traditionally used to provide care. You’re going to put up temporary beds, you’re going to redeploy your your staff to the highest acute patients, and manage as effectively as you can.”
Still, Kosin said that situation is never ideal. ”You don’t want to be in a situation where we’re canceling certain surgeries, or having to prioritize certain patients as they come in. But that is the concern here,” he said.
During Alaska’s worst spike last fall and winter, coronavirus hospitalizations statewide hovered between 150 and 160. The last time they approached current levels was late winter. A New York Times tracker showed that by Monday, Alaska had the second-highest increase in hospitalizations over the last two weeks among U.S. states.
Health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated against the virus, noting that the vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness, including from the more contagious variants.
The recent rise in cases can likely be attributed in part to the highly contagious delta variant first identified in India in December and in Alaska in May, health officials have said. The newer strain has been linked to higher hospitalization rates, and is considered the most transmissible variant yet.
On Monday, the office of Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young shared a series of tweets about him getting vaccinated, noting that he had COVID-19 last year and “it is NOT an experience I want again. That is why I chose to get vaccinated.”
“I understand there is quite a bit of misinformation out there, so let me be clear: these vaccines are safe and can help keep you out of the hospital,” Young said in a tweet.
By Monday, 48% of Alaskans had received one dose, and 43% were fully vaccinated. This is below the national average of 50% of the total U.S. population fully vaccinated.
Of the 535 new resident cases reported Monday, there were 210 in Anchorage, 40 in Sitka, 33 in Juneau, 28 in Wasilla, 21 in Seward, 20 in Kodiak, 18 in Kenai, 18 in Soldotna, 16 in Eagle River, 16 in Palmer, 15 in Fairbanks, eight in North Pole, six in Cordova, five in Chugiak, five in Ketchikan, three in Utqiagvik, two in Delta Junction, two in Girdwood, two in Nome, two in Valdez, and one each in Anchor Point, Chevak, Douglas, Ester, Hooper Bay, Knik-Fairview, Sterling, Sutton-Alpine, and Wrangell.
Among smaller communities, there were 20 in the Copper River Census Area, 10 in the Bethel Census Area, eight in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough, five in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough, three in the Kodiak Island Borough, two in the Aleutians East Borough, two in Kusilvak Census area, and one each in the Bristol Bay plus Lake and Peninsula area, the Dillingham Census Area, the North Slope Borough, the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, the Yakutat plus Hoonah-Angoon, and the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area.
There were 27 nonresident cases also identified: five in Anchorage, four in Seward, three in Ketchikan, two in Fairbanks, two in Juneau, two in Kodiak, two in Soldotna, one in Eagle River, one in Wasilla and two in unidentified regions of the state.
All but three regions of the state were at the highest alert level. Of all the coronavirus tests completed in the state over the last week, 5.2% came back positive.
Note: The health department now updates its coronavirus dashboard on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays excluding holidays.