Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a dramatic new high this week as health care facilities struggle with a surge of mostly unvaccinated patients who providers say are stretching the system to its limits.
The state reported 186 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday as well as two deaths in people with the virus, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. The deaths were in a man in his 50s from the Fairbanks North Star Borough and a woman in her 60s from the Kusilvak Census Area in Western Alaska.
Statewide, COVID-positive patients accounted for 1 in 5 of all hospitalized people as of Monday. The state’s hospitals added about 20 new COVID-positive patients over the Labor Day weekend, putting more pressure on a hospital system providers say is already becoming overwhelmed.
Hospitalizations recently hit new records, superseding 151 people hospitalized at one time over the winter. There were at least 165 patients with COVID-19 in hospitals around the state by week’s end.
The hospital statistics don’t include long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but continue to need care, hospital officials said this week. So they underestimate the true impact of the virus on capacity.
Providers say COVID-19 patients now are younger and sicker than before, requiring time-intensive care, and needing hospitalization longer than traditional patients.
Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, in the state’s least vaccinated urban region, reported 39 COVID-19 patients as of Monday — nearly half of the hospital’s total patient count.
The hospital has stopped accepting transfers from other facilities and is postponing non-emergency procedures on a daily, case-by-case basis, according to Dr. Thomas Quimby, the hospital’s emergency department director. That can mean delaying cardiac catheterization or the removal of cancerous tumors.
The hospital’s COVID-positive patients stay for an average of three weeks — longer than other patients.
Cases show no sign of abating in Mat-Su, which tends to lag several weeks behind Anchorage, Quimby said. Maybe Anchorage will level off soon and his hospital can send patients there.
“If that doesn’t happen, there’s no place to shift patients,” he said. “That’s very concerning.”
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, worked an emergency shift at the Mat-Su hospital on Saturday night and shared a photo on social media of a patient dashboard with 10 cases, eight of them showing symptoms of the virus.
“So much COVID,” Zink tweeted.
The highly contagious delta variant is driving the surge in hospitalizations and new cases. The state reported 2,059 resident cases over a four-day period from Friday to Monday, including 850 reported for Friday, the second-highest one-day resident tally since the pandemic began in March 2020.
“This situation continues to get worse and worse,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “It is so hard to watch.”
The new levels come as Anchorage mayor Dave Bronson and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy continue to make it clear they plan no new mitigation measures like mask orders and shy away from specific vaccine messaging. And unlike during last winter’s peak, hospitals are already full with other patients being treated by health care workers reeling from pandemic burnout or leaving the profession for good, leading to shortages.
As of Tuesday, 61.3% of eligible Alaskans had received at least one dose of vaccine and 55.7% were fully vaccinated, according to state data. Alaska was ranked 33rd out of 50 states for per capita vaccination rates.
The state’s test positivity rate, the percent positive tests out of the total performed, was 8.07% over a seven-day period as of Monday. Health experts say anything over 5% means broader testing is needed.
Dunleavy last week rejected calls to enact a public health disaster declaration. The governor amended the upcoming special session, adding bills expanding telehealth offerings and streamlining background checks and nurse licensing. Hearings began Tuesday.
More than 90% of the patients he sees at Mat-Su Regional are unvaccinated, Quimby said.
He saw a patient on Sunday who was in his 50s without significant medical problems. His wife was vaccinated but he wasn’t. He’d already been sick for 10 days before coming to the ER and was admitted with low oxygen levels.
The patient was scared.
“He just was miserable and remorseful. He’s already been sick for 10 days, now he’s going to be in the hospital,” Quimby said. “He asked me, ‘Can I get the vaccination now? I wish I had gotten it.’”