A surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alaska worsened over the weekend as the state tied a previous record for most patients hospitalized with the virus at one time.
The number of people hospitalized with the virus reached a pandemic-high of 151 for most of the weekend, Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said Monday. The last and only time that many people with COVID-19 were being treated in Alaska hospitals was in December 2020.
“We’ve hit new highs, and it looks like we’re not done yet,” Kosin said Monday. “Make no mistake: this is a crisis.”
The next two weeks will be critical in determining how the crisis develops, Kosin said. So far, the latest influx of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has shown little sign of slowing — the state on Monday reported 1,155 new cases in residents and nonresidents over three days, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard that is only updated on weekdays.
For weeks, Alaska hospitals have been operating at an unsustainable level due to the combination of busy summer admissions, staff shortages and the growing surge in high-needs COVID-19 patients. Providers are reporting lengthy ER waits, sporadic cancellations of elective procedures, and ICU patients competing for beds.
“If things keep accelerating, then it’s the scenario that we don’t talk about, that we haven’t talked about — that other states unfortunately have gone through,” Kosin said. That might look like surgeries canceled on a daily basis — “and the surgeries I’m talking about are not cosmetic surgeries; these are cancer extractions, very serious, life impacting procedures” — plus field hospitals being stood up and an exhausted workforce being pushed even further past their breaking point.
”I don’t know how else to tell people this is a very serious crisis, and I hope people understand that and take action on it,” Kosin said.
When asked which state or local interventions should be considered at this point, Kosin said “anything that is going to make life easier for our front-line caregivers and our facilities, we should do. Even if these are heavy lifts at this point, we should be throwing every resource possible at this problem.”
The hospital association has sent a list of demands to the state to consider, which includes addressing a staffing shortage by removing regulatory barriers that could be preventing health care staff reinforcements from the Lower 48 and using federal resources to increase nurse deployments to Alaska.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and administration officials on Thursday said they were working on some of these demands to increase the number of people who can treat COVID-19 patients.
Dunleavy and other officials, in a news conference streamed on Facebook, said vaccination remains the best solution to the ongoing crisis. But the governor stopped a step short of urging vaccinations, instead saying Alaskans should talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated “if that’s what they want to do.”
Besides getting vaccinated, what individual Alaskans can do right now to support health care workers and health care facilities is wear masks indoors in public spaces, limit indoor gatherings, and wash their hands, Kosin said Monday.
“It’s those practical steps that will make the difference immediately, because that is going to slow transmission. And if transmission slows, that’s going to slow hospitalizations, so it really does make a huge difference in the short term,” Kosin said.
Alaska, which in January held the top spot in the nation for per capita vaccination, is now 33rd among states. The state on Monday reported that 60.6% of Alaskans 12 and over had received at least one dose of vaccine and 54.9% were fully vaccinated.
The state’s seven-day average test positivity rate was 7.27%.