Alaska reported 1,270 new COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths Thursday as the state continues to lead the nation in case rates.
With case counts beginning to decline nationwide, Alaska is one of just a few states that continues to report relatively high daily case counts, near-record hospitalizations and rising deaths.
On average, the U.S. saw a 26% decrease in cases over the last two weeks while Alaska recorded an 84% increase.
If Alaska were a country, it would be the nation with the world’s highest per capita case rate, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Alaska’s 171 average daily cases per 100,000 over the last seven days is nearly double the rate seen in West Virginia, which ranks second in the United States. Bermuda and Serbia, at the top of the global list, have a case rate of 99.
The number of people with COVID-19 in Alaska’s hospitals remains at high levels, straining capacity and exhausting the state’s limited health care workforce.
“It’s been hell,” said Heidi DeCaro, a respiratory therapist at Providence Alaska Medical Center, whose job includes assisting COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breathe.
In a Thursday interview, DeCaro and a few of her co-workers described generally untenable work conditions. The team has been caring for up to twice their normal patient loads, their shifts have stretched as long as 15 hours, and they’ve lost “about a third” of their co-workers due mainly to burnout, exhaustion and a demoralizing work environment, they said.
In 15 years of doing this job, “I have never seen people as sick as this,” DeCaro said.
She said she treats patients each day that she doesn’t expect to stay alive through the night.
An added stress is that many of her patients do not believe that COVID is real.
“Even as they’re needing increased support and ICU-level care, family members and patients themselves are still kind of denying the reality of the situation,” she said. “That can be emotionally draining on top of losing patient after patient.”
“You don’t want to be yelled at. You don’t want to have to beg to help someone. It takes a lot out of you,” said Ashley Reaves, also a respiratory therapist at Providence.
Seeing far younger patients sickened with the delta variant compared to last winter’s surge has also been painful to witness, Reaves said. Watching parents of young children die adds an extra element of heartbreak.
“You walk into the room, and you can hear them on FaceTime with their kids,” she said. “And all the while, in the back of your head you are thinking, this person is not going to survive. These children are going to have to say goodbye to their loved ones over a Zoom call. And it is just emotionally wrecking. It is horrible,” she said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and top health officials enabled statewide crisis standards of care last week, offering each hospital the choice to enact standards as well as protect providers from liability.
The state this week also drafted crisis standards of care guidelines for which patients should be prioritized to receive monoclonal antibody treatments in Alaska when supplies are scarce, as they are now.
Over the last week, the treatment has been in short supply in the state due to national supply chain issues and overwhelming demand.
While some of those delayed shipments arrived in the state Wednesday, availability of the treatment is still limited, said Coleman Cutchins, state pharmacist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
The new guidelines state that “unvaccinated people who are at high risk for severe disease, or fully vaccinated people who are not expected to mount an adequate immune response, should be given priority when receiving these drugs,” Cutchins said.
Under a recently announced federal contract, Alaska is bringing as many as 470 health workers, many of them nurses or respiratory therapists, to Alaska starting this week.
Reaves, the respiratory therapist, said she cried with joy when she first learned about the out-of-state health care workers headed to Alaska, but she wasn’t sure it would be enough to fully solve existing staffing issues.
“I was like, this is better than Christmas. Like, I feel like our patients are going to get better care,” she said.
And yet, “if things don’t change drastically outside of the hospital, even with state help, it is not going to be enough,” she said.
On top of the state-contracted health care workers, Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage will be receiving added support from a Disaster Medical Assistance Team.
That team includes 35 health care workers from Massachusetts who were scheduled to arrive in Anchorage Thursday and will stay for at least two weeks, said Heidi Hedberg, director of the state Division of Public Health.
Alaska has reported 83 deaths over the last week. The state’s per capita death rate from the virus over the past seven days is now the highest in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, state health officials say that reported rate is somewhat inflated because it includes deaths occurring in August and earlier that were only recorded this week.
The 10 COVID-19 deaths reported Thursday all occurred recently, and involved five Anchorage men (three in their 60s, one in his 70s and one in his 80s); a Soldotna man in his 40s; a Palmer man in his 80s; a Copper River Census Area man in his 60s; a Fairbanks man in his 50s; and a North Pole woman in her 40s.
State data Thursday showed at least 203 people hospitalized with the virus around Alaska, including 36 people on ventilators.
That’s far higher than winter numbers, and a little less than the state’s record of 217 recorded last week.
Since March 2020, 556 Alaska residents and 21 nonresidents with the virus have died.