In the middle of a COVID-19 surge that has overwhelmed Alaska’s hospitals to crisis levels, Alaska officials said Wednesday that the state has signed a contract to bring nearly 500 health care workers from the Lower 48 to provide some relief.
The $87 million contract, signed Tuesday, with a company called DLH Solutions will bring 470 contracted health care workers to facilities around the state beginning next week, Heidi Hedberg, public health director with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said during a community briefing.
Wednesday’s announcement came on the same day that Alaska reported a record 1,251 new COVID-19 cases, and hospitals are continuing to struggle with a shortage of workers as resources are stretched to their limit.
The rollout will begin Monday and will happen in phases to allow the workers to travel to Alaska, receive emergency credentials, undergo a background check and train in fields including cultural competence before being deployed to hospitals in the state.
“We are working very closely with the hospital association and their members to prioritize where they go, and where the greatest need is,” Hedberg said.
The relief comes at a moment when Alaska’s health care system is being stretched to its limit.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday announced that Alaska was implementing crisis standards of care for the entire state, a drastic step that signals staff shortages and influx of COVID-19 patients could make it impossible for some hospitals to treat everyone.
In recent months, a surge in virus cases and hospitalizations driven by the highly contagious delta variant have overwhelmed Alaska’s hospitals beyond any previous surge, and many facilities have reported that staffing issues are their top concern.
The state’s personnel request includes 297 registered nurses, 114 certified nurse assistants or patient care techs, 15 respiratory therapists, 14 medical laboratory personnel, 12 surgical technicians, 11 social workers, two licensed practical nurses, two radiology technicians and one physician, Hedberg said. Their contract period is 90 days, with the option for three 30-day renewals after that.
In a statement, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association thanked the state for its “latest efforts in securing resources for our health care system.”
“Our caregivers have endured unspeakable stress as they work to keep us safe, and our health care system has been tested in ways we never imagined possible ... ASHNHA stands ready to partner with DHSS and our health care facilities for a quick, effective deployment of relief staff to the highest need areas in the state,” the association said.
The organization also called on all Alaskans to “do their part” to protect heath care workers and hospital capacity, including getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors in all public settings.
DLH Solutions was one of the contractors identified by FEMA and the General Services Administration to potentially support health care workers in the region.
Other states are also experiencing an acute health care staffing shortage, and Hedberg said she was initially concerned about how Alaska would find workers considering those broader challenges.
She said DLH employees reassured her that there was an “allure” to come work in Alaska, and that short-term contracts are typically more attractive than long-term contracts.
“A lot of the nurses are actually leaving retirement, and they’re enticed by coming to Alaska and working short-term,” Hedberg said.
She said the cost of the contract and the new workers was “100% FEMA reimbursable.”
Hospitals in the state say that staff are burned out from over a year and a half of working through a pandemic with little relief, and that many have retired early, or left the state or profession entirely. COVID-19 patients also often require more complex, staff-intensive care than other patients, which has put further strain on the system.
At Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where more than 200 entry-level positions remained open, a severe staffing shortage prompted the facility to write a letter this week to borough officials requesting $4 million so that wages could be increased by $2-$3 per hour for “critically essential” entry-level positions. The letter was signed by hospital CEO Shelley Ebenal and Jeff Cook, chairman of the Foundation Health Partners board of directors.
State officials on Wednesday announced other actions being taken to address the worsening pandemic situation in Alaska.
The Board of Nursing has passed emergency regulations reducing the required number of training hours for certified nurse assistants to expedite the certification process, and the state is also working with the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association on ramping up recruitment for CNAs locally.
Additionally, Alaska’s health department is purchasing $2 million worth of at-home rapid testing kits to be distributed through schools to families so kids can be tested before coming to school. Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said that purchase arose from a desire to find a way to keep youths in school and keep them healthy, and the effort will focus on areas with high COVID-19 case rates and limited testing options.
The state is also pursuing ways for emergency medical service providers in major population centers to help alleviate pressure on hospitals through telemedicine, transfers to alternate health care facilities and at-home checks, Hedberg said.
“Our top priority has been protecting the health care system,” she said.