Alaska’s governor on Wednesday painted a bleak picture of the state’s current hospital capacity amid an ongoing and fierce resurgence of the COVID-19 virus coupled with staff shortages and busy summer admissions.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy addressed residents in a podcast, the first the governor’s done during his time in office.
“If you get hurt or you get sick and you would normally go to the hospital expecting a certain level of care, you may not get it,” Dunleavy said during the roughly five-minute podcast posted to his Facebook page.
Given constrained staffing, and the highly contagious delta variant currently infecting hundreds daily statewide, the governor said those seeking care at the state’s hospital may face long wait-times.
And, in some cases, Dunleavy said, they may get turned away altogether.
“The hospitals today are constrained more so than they were at the height of the original variant of the Covid virus back in November,” he said.
He encouraged Alaskans to “be a little safer this summer,” and to get the vaccine now if they’re contemplating it.
“Just understand that if you do get sick, if you do get injured and you plan on going to the hospital, you have to be prepared to not receive the care you expect,” Dunleavy said.
The governor got sick with COVID-19 in February and said while he wasn’t hospitalized, “it wasn’t a fun experience...it was an inconvenience,” and later received his vaccination against the virus.
“We are not mandating masks and we are certainly not going to mandate vaccines,” Dunleavy said. “You just need to be prepared for long waits at the hospital or in some cases being turned away. And again, if you’re interested in the vaccine, the vaccine is available.”
Hospital and public health officials have been sounding the alarm for weeks about the state’s overtaxed and understaffed hospital system.
In Anchorage, the epicenter of the state’s health-care system, just two intensive care unit beds were available on Wednesday, according to data from the municipality. Of the 14 intensive care units in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, none were available, state data showed Wednesday.
By Tuesday, 130 people were hospitalized with active cases of the virus statewide, making up nearly 14% of the total people in Alaska hospitals, state data showed.
That number doesn’t include everyone suffering from the impacts of COVID-19 in the state’s hospital beds, Alaska chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said in a public video call Wednesday.
There are others still hospitalized but no longer actively infected with COVID-19, including people who had strokes or a heart attack as a complication of the infection.
Alaska reported 620 new cases and 11 more deaths from the virus on Wednesday.
The deaths were among a Northwest Arctic Borough man in his 70s; a Southeast Fairbanks Census Area man over 80; a Wasilla woman in her 70s; an Anchorage woman older than 80; an Anchorage man in his 70s; an Anchorage man in his 60s; a Soldotna man in his 40s and an Anchor Point man in his 80s.
Additionally a nonresident man in Fairbanks in his 60s died, as did a woman in her 40s in Fairbanks and a woman in her 70s in Soldotna.
Most of the COVID-19 deaths reported this week are tied to the state’s current surge, health officials said. Of the 24 deaths Alaska reported between Tuesday and Wednesday, 14 occurred in August and eight in July, while one occurred in June and two in May.
Reporting of COVID-19 deaths was delayed because of a June cyber attack that limited the state’s processing of death certificates. With COVID-19, or any disease, a death certificate may get sent to federal health officials to determine the cause of death, according to Alaska health officials, which can take several weeks.
The deaths reported Wednesday included eight resident deaths and three nonresident deaths, bringing the total number of people in Alaska to die from the virus to 427 residents and 11 nonresidents.
Health officials this week continued to underline the importance of a COVID-19 as it can prevent severe illness from the virus.
“The vaccines are protective against infection as well as hospitalization and death,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said on the call. “So the more people we have vaccinated, the fewer people we will see with infection.”
Zink noted that while some people do still get sick after getting vaccinated, the vaccines are playing a critical role of keeping many out of hospitals and alive.
“It’s not uncommon to be in the emergency department and see someone who’s really struggling to breathe and their spouse is vaccinated sitting next to them and their spouse is fine,” Zink, who works as an emergency physician at Mat-Su Regional said. “And that patient is unvaccinated is super sick -- it’s just striking.”
By Wednesday, a little over 60% of Alaskans ages 12 and older had received their first dose of the vaccine while 54% were considered fully vaccinated.
Of all COVID-19 tests in the last week, an average of 6.6% were returned as positive.