Alaska reported yet another record for hospitalizations in people with COVID-19 through the weekend and one virus-related death as a weekslong surge linked to the highly infectious delta variant continued.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital also reported two new deaths in people with the virus on Monday. Fairbanks and North Pole are seeing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, including 175 cases reported on Friday alone.
The state reported the death of an Anchorage man 80 or older. Since March 2020, 445 Alaskans and 14 out-of-state residents have died with COVID-19, a total that doesn’t yet include the two Fairbanks deaths.
A combination of staff shortages, heavy overall admissions levels and a crush of COVID-19 patients is pushing the state’s hospitals to the brink of what the system can handle and still provide care, medical providers and health officials say.
State data reported Monday showed 210 COVID-positive patients hospitalized around the state as of Sunday, more than half of them in Anchorage. That’s up slightly from the record set Thursday of 208. Virus-related hospitalizations have risen more than 1,200% since late June, when there were barely two dozen COVID-positive patients at one time.
Hospitals say those numbers are likely an undercount of the true impact of COVID-19, since they don’t include some long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but still need hospital care.
As of Monday, the Anchorage municipality was reporting zero intensive care unit beds available in the city, though that data can change quickly.
Some ICU nurses are caring for twice the number of patients they normally do, health officials said late last week: Instead of one nurse per two patients, many are caring for three or four.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital last week began reconfiguring three meeting rooms for patient care as an “emergency response to a massive COVID surge and critical staffing shortages,” according to an email from hospital spokesperson Kelly Atlee. Patients housed there would most likely require less-intensive care. The hospital has also transitioned a day room within a nursing unit to accommodate five beds.
The hospital can’t use the Carlson Center arena for alternate care because Alaska has no active emergency declaration to authorize that use. Staffing the center would have been a challenge regardless, Atlee said.
“This space will be utilized in the event that we, essentially, run out of space to provide care,” she wrote.
Late last week, the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation declared an emergency due to the influx of patients and residents in the region that are ill with COVID-19. During the week prior, there were 83 new cases in the region.
The declaration, which is expected to last a few weeks depending on community transmission levels, allows the health corporation to reassign workers from other positions to help alleviate pressure on the 16-room critical care Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, according to spokesperson Jennifer De Winne.
“We were just getting full with patients and struggling with some staffing,” De Winne said, adding the declaration also serves to alert the community about the seriousness of the pandemic there.
Last week, the hospital had seven patients -- four with COVID-19, she said.
Most of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients around the state are unvaccinated, statistics show. During the last week in August, 81% of hospitalized COVID-positive patients and 85% of those in the ICU were unvaccinated, according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. Seventeen of 18 COVID-19 patients on ventilators were not vaccinated.
As of Monday, 61.8% of eligible Alaskans had received at least one dose of vaccine and 56.5% were fully vaccinated, according to state data. After assuming the title of most-vaccinated state earlier this year, Alaska on Monday ranked 35th per capita.
The state reported a total of 1,473 new cases in Alaskans over the three-day period over the weekend, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard: 784 residents and 26 nonresidents on Friday; 370 residents and 13 nonresidents on Saturday; and 277 residents and three nonresidents on Sunday. Of the resident cases, Anchorage accounted for 499, with Fairbanks at 197 and Wasilla at 124.
Other regions are also seeing higher numbers of infections, including the North Slope Borough and the Mat-Su communities of Wasilla and Palmer, which accounted for a quarter -- 90 out of 370 -- of the cases reported for Saturday, state data shows.
State officials say the continued high numbers of new cases are leading to backlogs in testing and contact tracing, both strategies used to limit the spread of the virus.
As of Monday, the state’s seven-day average test positivity rate -- the number of positive tests out of total performed -- was 9.25%, a near record since the pandemic began. Health officials say anything over 5% indicates a need for more testing.