Alaska’s hospitalizations hit a new record high for COVID-positive patients for a third day in a row Thursday as the highly infectious delta variant drives up case counts.
Hospitals are reporting long wait times and full capacity as they balance staff shortages and busy summer admissions with the sudden influx of younger, sicker, mostly unvaccinated COVID-positive patients who need additional time and care.
Hospital leaders from across the state on Thursday described a current moment of crisis to state legislators. At a hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee, they spoke in detail of burned-out and dwindled hospital staffs and an unprecedented strain on the state’s health care system.
“We are not doing well at all,” said Dr. Robert Onders of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
“We are in disaster mode here,” said Dave Wallace, CEO of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.
“We are being tested like never before,” said Preston Simmons, CEO of Providence Alaska.
“The situation is dire,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff at the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
“I want to be clear and on the record: We are in crisis,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Simmons, from Providence, said that on Wednesday, a record 30 patients were holding in the emergency department. The ER waiting room was past capacity for safe distancing, Simmons said, so some waited in their cars.
“This is not the care that Alaskans deserve, and it has taken an emotional, physical toll on our caregivers,” Simmons said.
Providence is seeing record retirement rates among caregivers, he said, while staffing vacancy rates are double their target.
Wallace, at Mat-Su Regional, described a nurse telling him about the worst week of their career after watching desperate young patients die of a disease that has a vaccine, an emergency room staff member who cries on the way to work and on the way home, and said administrators have to “beg” staff to come back each shift because of how stretched the hospital is.
“We know we’re at an unprecedented level of stress,” Wallace said.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim region, in Southwest Alaska, saw dramatic increases in cases recently, with half occurring among children under the age of 12 who aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, said Hodges with YKHC.
Hodges told the committee about an extremely ill patient in the region a few nights ago who waited hours for intensive care treatment as staff reached out to every hospital in the state seeking a bed after the usual referral center, the Alaska Native Medical Center, didn’t have room.
The patient deteriorated as the hours ticked by, she said.
“I would ask you to put yourself in the shoes of this patient or this family,” Hodges said. “Imagine the fear and the hopelessness.”
Hodges emphasized the connection among Alaskans through health care and said certain choices affect others in the state.
“The choice of an unvaccinated person to go maskless in a crowded venue causes a person in a village, hundreds of miles away, to go without the resources needed to simply survive,” Hodges said.
‘Mentally and physically exhausting’
By Thursday, there were 170 people hospitalized with the virus around the state, higher than at any other point in the pandemic, according to an Anchorage municipal dashboard. There were three ICU beds available in the city.
Patient numbers rose quickly this week. On Tuesday, the state reported 152 people hospitalized with COVID-19, and over the weekend, 151, which tied the record set during the prior peak.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is hoping to contract with Lower 48 medical workers to help staff hospitals, but that will take a few weeks, officials said at a briefing Thursday.
People working in those hospitals say there seems to be a disconnect between the urgency they see at work every day and the public’s behavior when it comes to masking or choosing to get vaccinated. Doctors, nurses and administrators liken it to working in a building on fire as people just walk by.
Chief nursing officer Karen Scoggins arrived at Soldotna’s Central Peninsula Hospital on Thursday morning to start her shift in an intensive-care unit filled entirely with COVID-19 patients.
The hospital is operating at 112% capacity: 55 patients for 49 beds. Some long-term patients are two to a room. Twenty-one of the patients have COVID-19, 17 of them unvaccinated. Scoggins, who works the floor in scrubs to help out, said nurses and other workers are doing everything to keep up, including volunteering for extra shifts.
As she got to work, a group of five PPE-clad colleagues “proned” several unconscious COVID-infected patients, turning them onto their stomachs to help them breathe gently to protect the breathing tube in their mouths, the central line for medications, a catheter to carry urine. Families can only visit with them if they’re dying.
Later in the day, when Scoggins got off work, she expected to return to a community that seems unaware of the dire cases she’s seen all day. Scoggins wears a mask when she’s shopping. Few others do.
“It’s mentally and physically exhausting to feel like we’re doing everything we can to treat the patients that come in and then go out, there’s just a lack of information,” she said. “I get it, people are tired of it. We are too. But it is definitely challenging to face these two separate worlds.”
The state reported 727 new cases on Thursday, involving 682 Alaskans and 45 nonresidents. That’s lower than Wednesday’s near-record report of 801 cases, the state’s second highest tally, but officials say a data backlog means the daily case updates aren’t a reliable indicator of the true total.
Generally, Alaska’s case counts are probably increasing, and definitely not decreasing, according to epidemiologist Dr. Louisa Castrodale. Out-of-state residents are also testing positive at higher numbers than earlier this summer.
No new deaths were reported Thursday. A total of 435 Alaskans and 13 nonresidents have died with the virus.
The urgency of the ongoing surge surfaced at a Mat-Su school board meeting Wednesday night.
For the first time since the pandemic began, Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink — a Mat-Su resident who’s a local middle school parent — addressed the board via a Zoom call with other top state health officials.
“This is honestly, for me, the worst point in the pandemic, where we’re at right now. I never wanted to see our hospitals where they are right now,” Zink said. “It’s not a good place, and we really need every Alaskan to help us pull forward, to protect, to protect each other ... we’re all in this together and we, unfortunately, have already had tremendous loss. But I think that’s going to get a lot worse if we don’t all do our part to slow it down.”
She recommended a multi-layered approach, including vaccination and universal indoor masking when viral transmission is high, a step several districts including Mat-Su have not taken.
Some of the new cases are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people — about a third in July, according to a recent report. But most of the COVID-19 patients overwhelming the state’s health-care facilities are unvaccinated, providers say.
Vaccination rates increased 44% this week compared to the last week in July, state data shows.
Just over 55% of eligible Alaskans were fully vaccinated, the state reported Thursday. There were 61% of Alaskans with at least one dose of vaccine. Roughly 46% of eligible Kenai Peninsula residents were fully vaccinated. Just over 38% of Mat-Su residents were, the lowest urban vaccination rate in the state.
The Alaska Chamber of Commerce on Thursday unveiled a series of $49,000 awards to encourage vaccinations.