Alaska on Wednesday reported four COVID-19 deaths and 647 cases of COVID-19, as hospitals in Alaska also continue to report unprecedented levels of stress on their services.
Limited beds continue to fill with COVID-19 patients, reaching levels not seen since winter. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, on Wednesday described her recent emergency room shifts at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center as “heartbreaking.”
“We’re seeing so many sick people, who, it’s completely preventable, or at least the majority are preventable,” she said during s Wednesday call with reporters and members of the public, noting that most COVID-19 hospitalizations right now are among people who are not vaccinated.
“It is unvaccinated person after unvaccinated person who’s struggling to breathe, saying, ‘I didn’t think this would be this bad,’” she said.
Recent research cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that vaccinated people are about eight times less likely to get COVID-19, and 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.
Although COVID-19 hospitalizations now make up just under 14% of total hospital patients statewide, Zink said that the latest count of 127 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alaska — including 21 people on ventilators — is enough to overwhelm a health care system that typically runs close to capacity during the busy summer months.
In Anchorage, where 74 COVID-19 patients were receiving care, just three ICU beds remained available as of Wednesday, according to the municipality’s hospital dashboard.
At Providence Alaska Medical Center, the hospital’s emergency room has recently filled with patients who cannot be quickly transferred elsewhere in the hospital due to lack of beds, Dr. Dan Safranek, Providence’s ER director, said this week.
“We’ve been under quite a lot of strain, both from the rise in COVID cases, and also quite a bit compounded by the hospital being at capacity,” Safranek said.
The emergency room has “essentially become a holding place for admitted patients,” he said. “Patients that we’ve seen and evaluated, and we feel that they need hospital admission, but there’s no place in the hospital to put them, so they just remain in the ER, occupying those emergency room beds,” he explained.
That backlog has stretched ER wait times to more than four hours for some patients this week, Safranek said — an extremely unusual situation. He’s worked at Providence for more than 20 years, and described current ER wait times as some of the longest he’s seen.
And although Alaska’s current count remains below the most confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations reported by the state at any time —151 on Dec. 8 — Safranek said this surge feels worse than the winter based on the bed availability and staffing.
“I’d say capacity is more strained now than it’s ever been,” he said.
Health officials say the latest surge is driven by the highly contagious delta variant, sickening younger, healthier, but mostly unvaccinated patients.
All four of the newly reported deaths were recent. They involved three men from Anchorage, one in his 50s, one in his 60s and one in his 70s; and a man from Palmer in his 60s. A total of 404 Alaskans and eight nonresidents have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state last spring.
By Wednesday, 49.4% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 44.5% of the entire population was considered fully vaccinated. Among only eligible Alaskans 12 and older, those percentages were higher: 59.3% had received one dose, and 53.4% had completed their vaccination series.
Of all the tests conducted over the past week, 7.45% were positive — an increase from Tuesday. A positivity rate over 5% can point to higher transmission and not enough virus detection.
Zink also said Wednesday that contact tracing efforts have become strained statewide by the surge in cases.
“So if you’re COVID-positive, please isolate for 10 days, and let your close contacts know,” she said.
Anyone with even mild COVID-19 symptoms — plus anyone who is a close contact of someone who has tested positive — should get tested, regardless of vaccination status, according to the CDC.