Alaska News

Alaska’s hospitals say staffing shortages are a top concern as surge in COVID-19 cases continues

Alaska’s current virus surge, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, continued on Friday with the state reporting 592 new COVID-19 cases and critically high counts of virus-related hospitalizations around the state.

With just over half of Alaska’s eligible population fully vaccinated, hospital administrators continued to report an unprecedented amount of stress placed on the state’s health care system.

They say typically high numbers of summer admissions have been exacerbated by severe staffing shortages and a recent influx of younger, sicker, mostly unvaccinated patients ill with COVID-19.

“The acuity (levels) of patients in the hospitals right now is way higher than we ever, ever have had to treat,” Jocelyn Pemberton, CEO of the Alaska Hospitalist Group, said Friday during a community briefing.

She said her top concern is working with the state to find ways to get additional staff to hospitals and their ICUs to address severe staff shortages.

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.

Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, which means current record counts are actually a reflection of virus that was spreading in the community two to three weeks ago.

With case counts on the rise, “I’m increasingly concerned that we’re not getting ahead of these numbers, and not doing enough to promote and shift the culture around masking and vaccines,” Pemberton said.

[ICU nurses at an Anchorage hospital are worn down from the pandemic. For one afternoon, a crisis-response dog’s visit offered a brief respite.]

At least 165 people were hospitalized with the virus by Friday, including 21 on ventilators, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. In Anchorage, just three ICU beds remained open.

More people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state this week than at any point during the pandemic, including during the state’s previous winter surge, when vaccines were not yet available to general public.

Daily case counts are continuing along an upward trajectory, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin told a group of state legislators during a House Health and Social Services Committee hearing Thursday evening.

Between this week and last, Alaska’s COVID-19 cases rose by about 13%, he said. This week, Alaska reported its second-highest ever daily case count, and a state modeling tool predicted a continued upward trend in new cases.

Friday’s total of 579 new cases among residents and 13 involving nonresidents was slightly lower than Thursday’s count of 727 new cases, but officials say a data backlog means the daily case updates aren’t a reliable indicator of the true total.

Nationally, week-to-week increases in cases are beginning to slow down, which might mean things are beginning to level off across the country, McLaughlin said.

Globally, in some European nations, there was a sharp rise in cases, as well as peak and then a sharp fall, which tended to occur over a period of a few months.

Whether that will happen in Alaska or the U.S. is hard to say just yet, McLaughlin said.

[U.S. COVID death toll hits 1,500 a day amid delta scourge]

“In terms of what’s happening in Alaska, I think we’re still on a pretty steep increasing trajectory,” he said. “But one of the things we learned early in COVID is it’s so difficult to predict the future.”

Alaska hospital leaders told committee members during the same hearing Thursday about the grim situation in the state’s emergency departments and intensive care units as both staff and space remain scarce.

Many — including Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer — have described Alaska’s current situation as a crisis worse than anything they’d seen so far during the pandemic.

Providence Alaska Medical Center announced on Friday that due to high rates of community transmission, beginning Monday the facility would be returning to its strictest visitor policy, meaning that visitors wouldn’t be allowed in most situations, with a few exceptions for end-of-life or maternity care.

No new deaths were reported Friday. In total, 435 Alaskans and 13 nonresidents have died with the virus since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Nationally, COVID-19 deaths have risen in recent weeks, hitting a seven-day average of about 1,500 a day Thursday after falling to the low 200s in early July.

[Alaska launches series of $49,000 awards to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations]

By Friday, 61.1% of the state’s eligible population had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while just over 55% were considered fully vaccinated. Among states, Alaska ranked 34th in the nation for most-vaccinated percentage of its population. In an effort to encourage more Alaskans to get vaccinated, the state and the Alaska Chamber on Thursday launched a $49,000 weekly prize drawing that runs through Oct. 30 for newly vaccinated adults and youths.

In Anchorage, the state’s largest city, there was a 17% increase in testing and a 15% rise in vaccines administered last week compared to the previous week, according to a Friday update from the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

The Anchorage School District began publishing school-specific COVID-19 case data this week. A majority of schools had reported at least one case, according to the data. By Friday, there were 313 active cases reported to the district and there have been 685 cases since Aug. 12.

Over the past week, an average of 6.9% of the COVID-19 tests conducted statewide returned positive results. Health officials have said that positivity rates above 5% can indicate widespread community transmission, and sometimes that not enough testing is being done to detect virus spread.

The state health department will next update its COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday due to the Labor Day holiday.


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