Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged more Alaskans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the state on Tuesday reported seven more deaths linked to the virus, near-record hospitalizations and nearly 700 new cases statewide.
The current surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is pushing Alaska’s health care system to its limit. Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, announced in a letter Tuesday that it was implementing crisis standards of care and rationing medical care in response to an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients that has forced providers to prioritize patients most likely to recover.
Talking to reporters on Tuesday morning in Juneau, Dunleavy said it’s clear to him that the state’s health care system is struggling to meet demand and health care workers are burning out.
”They definitely have hospital capacity issues. I’ve been there, I’ve been to a couple hospitals. And there are people working long hours, there are people leaving their jobs. This is shrinking our capacity,” he said.
The letter signed by Providence’s chief of staff describes an emergency room overflowing with patients, heart attack patients who are denied timely care, declined transfer requests from outlying rural hospitals and a strict no-visitor policy except for non-COVID patients who are dying.
Public health officials have said the best way for Alaskans to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, and protect hospital capacity, is to get vaccinated.
”I strongly urge folks to get a vaccine. I strongly urge them to do that,” said Dunleavy, who is fully vaccinated. The governor has recommended COVID-19 vaccinations in the past but has also spoken out against vaccine mandates, including a sweeping requirement affecting larger U.S. businesses recently announced by President Joe Biden.
Larger hospitals in Anchorage and Mat-Su have described crisis-level staffing shortages and an overburdened system trying to provide care for higher numbers of COVID-19 patients and non-COVID patients alike. Meanwhile, smaller hospitals in outlying communities, even in places with less widespread virus transmission, are struggling to transfer seriously ill people or scrambling to care for them in place.
”We just want to make sure that when somebody has to go to the hospital, whether it’s because of diabetes, a heart issue, a car accident — God forbid any of those things — or the virus, that they get the care that we all expect,” Dunleavy said.
There were 691 new cases reported Tuesday, including 676 among residents and 15 among nonresidents. The seven newly reported deaths all occurred recently and involved three Anchorage men in their 50s, two in their 60s and one in his 70s, along with a nonresident in Juneau who was in her 60s. Since March 2020, 451 Alaskans and 15 people from out of state who were in Alaska have died with COVID-19.
Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations fell slightly from a record of 210 reported Monday to 202 being reported as of Tuesday afternoon, according to state data. Over half of those hospitalizations were concentrated in Anchorage, and included 33 people on ventilators.
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.
According to a New York Times tracker updated Tuesday, Alaska over the last two weeks saw the second-highest increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations among all states, topped only by North Dakota, which has a vaccination rate about five points below Alaska’s. By Tuesday, Alaska’s case rate was the third highest in the nation, behind Tennessee and Kentucky.
Nationally, cases and hospitalizations linked to the the highly contagious delta variant have been on the rise, with states with lower vaccination rates typically hardest hit. Alaska’s 64% increase in hospitalizations over the last two weeks is well above the national average of 8%.
After assuming the title of most-vaccinated state earlier this year, Alaska on Tuesday ranked 35th per capita. By Tuesday, 61.9% of eligible Alaskans had received at least one dose of vaccine and 56.5% were fully vaccinated, according to state data.
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.
With Alaska’s ICUs and emergency rooms overflowing with patients and burdened by staff shortages and limited bed space, Dunleavy’s administration recently drafted legislation intended to help hospitals and other medical facilities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic by relaxing state laws on telemedicine and health care workers’ background checks.
That bill died Monday in the Alaska House of Representatives after losing support over an amendment that could have prevented hospitals from limiting patient visits.
In Bethel, a new vaccine mandate went into effect this week that requires all city employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 27, with exemptions possible for those with religious or medical objections.
The new policy was signed by City Manager Peter Williams on Monday, who said that the city first tried a policy of regularly testing its employees, but that seemed inadequate.
“A person can be carrying this virus around with them and able to spread it before you can catch it with the testing,” he said.
Williams said he anticipated some pushback to the policy but noted that those voices are a minority. There are a little over 100 people who work for the city, and just 17 are unvaccinated, he said.
Bethel has also implemented a mask mandate and is giving out $100 per COVID-19 shot in an attempt to “be part of bringing this situation under control,” he added.
Just over 57% of Bethel’s total population is fully vaccinated — above the state average of 47% of all Alaskans who are fully vaccinated.
State officials say 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 Tuesday, the state’s seven-day average test positivity rate — the number of positive tests out of total performed — was 9.1%, a near record since the pandemic began. Health officials say anything over 5% indicates a need for more testing.
Daily News reporter James Brooks contributed from Juneau.