Hospital administrators statewide are begging Alaskans to get vaccinated and readopting pandemic protocols as a new wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations threatens to overwhelm Alaska’s health care system.
In virus hotspots, including Anchorage, hospitals are running near or at capacity and without full staffing. Some facilities are returning to more restrictive visitation policies, COVID-only units and are reevaluating elective surgeries — policies largely dismantled after the pandemic subsided and vaccines became broadly available.
Meanwhile, the state’s vaccination rates have stalled, with just over half eligible Alaskans fully vaccinated against the virus. Like other states around the country, Alaska is experiencing coronavirus outbreaks driven by the more transmissible delta variant.
Hospital administrators said the new wave of hospitalizations involve younger, sicker patients than seen previously — likely due the delta’s variant’s increased virulence.
The outbreaks are stretching the state’s health care capacity at a busy time of the year, hospital administrators said at a briefing Tuesday, convened by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. As of Tuesday, 94 people in Alaska were hospitalized with the virus, and about 9% of all hospitalizations statewide were COVID-related.
During the briefing, administrators encouraged anyone who isn’t vaccinated to get informed and immunized.
“At this rate we are tracking towards a significant care event,” association president and CEO Jared Kosin said, calling the system fragile in comparison to last winter, when the pandemic peaked. “We have less room, we have less staff and we have a burned-out workforce.”
The last week and a half has been “extremely challenging” at Anchorage’s three hospitals, said Dr. Bob Onders, administrator at Alaska Native Medical Center.
ANMC on Tuesday once again closed off a wing and turned it into a COVID-only unit, Onders said. Testing at the hospital has more than doubled in the last few days, with a positivity rate of 9% — significantly higher than the 5% level considered a red flag.
The state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, is at full or nearly full capacity due to high patient numbers, said CEO Ella Goss. That includes 26 COVID-19 patients, including five on ventilators, most of them unvaccinated, said Goss. Patients who can’t be seen face delayed treatment or possible transport to Seattle, far from family.
Providence recently made the “difficult decision” to temporarily postpone non-urgent elective procedures requiring an overnight stay, Goss said. That policy was in effect for Monday and Tuesday of this week, a hospital spokesperson said.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of COVID patients needing the highest level of care,” she said. “Today we’re asking our fellow Alaskans to do their part … If you haven’t already done so, please, please get your COVID-19 vaccine.”
Alaska Regional Hospital went from two patients with the virus on June 21 to 26 patients on Tuesday, nine in intensive care, CEO Jennifer Opsut said.
“The bottom line is that our hospital is already very busy with sick Alaskans,” Opsut said. “If trends with COVID-19 continue, we are concerned that our hospitals will become overwhelmed here in Anchorage.”
Patients with COVID-19 account for half of the 18 patients at Sitka’s 25-bed Mt Edgecumbe Hospital this week, according to Dr. Elliot Bruhl, chief medical officer for Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which operates the hospital. The community is experiencing a major outbreak, with 255 active cases as of this week.
The hospital is limiting visitors to patients only, with a few exceptions, Bruhl said. The consortium administered 120 shots last week and hopes to do the same this week.
“The key asset that we have is vaccination,” he said.
Vaccination rates are above the statewide average in more rural parts of the state with a strong tribal health presence, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, but cases and hospitalizations are rising again there too, health officials say.
“It’s déjà vu all over again, unfortunately,” said Dan Winkelman, president and CEO of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the regional tribal health organization. “We’re kind of starting off like it was last fall.”
In response to outbreaks hitting villages, some residents are now deciding to get vaccinated.
“For some people, that’s going to be too late,” he said.
Despite the climbing case counts and longer hospital stays, the hospital association and administrators stopped short of pushing for state or local mandates.
The hospital association wants to convey the urgency of the situation to unvaccinated Alaskans, Kosin said.
The association has talked with the governor’s office and others at the state level, he said. Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and the state health commissioner, Adam Crum, listened in on Tuesday’s briefing.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday called on Alaskans to “use good judgement and practice common safety measures” after hospital leaders spoke about their concerns about the state’s limited health care system and high rate of hospitalizations, according to a written statement from the governor’s office.
The statement from the governor did not take as urgent a tone as the hospital briefing. Dunleavy listed five actions Alaskans should take — driving safely, using protective gear when operating power tools and machinery, wearing a life jacket, preparing for the elements, and extinguishing camp and cooking fires — before advising “choosing to take advantage of a free COVID-19 vaccine, which I have done.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with high transmission of COVID-19 — which now includes most of Alaska.
Kosin said it would be up to elected officials and policymakers to follow the science.
“We’re not interested in the political side of this, we are trying to get the message out of what’s going on,” he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of Providence Alaska Medical Center’s delay of non-urgent elective surgeries requiring overnight stays. The hospital paused such procedures on Monday and Tuesday of this week.