Despite high volumes of staff calling in sick at Alaska’s hospitals and nursing homes during the current surge of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant, the hospital system is intact, for now, officials said Monday.
“We definitely are hearing from some facilities — it’s hitting hard, they’re scrambling to respond,” said Jared Kosin, president of the state hospital and nursing homes association. “But from an overall system standpoint, I think this week is going to be really telling as to how severe this challenge is going to be.”
Kosin said he’s preparing for serious challenges in the next few days, but staffing issues at the moment vary across the state: some facilities are being hit harder with staff call-outs than others.
And what happens this week, whether those staff call-outs increase further, or begin to level off, will help determine whether the state’s healthcare system might see further delays and chokepoints.
Over the past three days Alaska reported 3,208 new cases among residents and 76 nonresident cases in the same period, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.
The additional cases Monday follow a week when the state reported record-high case increases linked to the omicron variant, during a week when case counts more than doubled compared to the week before, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.
“We expect that we will continue to see an increase in Omicron cases over time until we peak and start going downwards,” he said.
The omicron variant is better at getting past prior immunity, whether from a vaccine or previous infection, and it’s more transmissible than other variants, which means case counts are unprecedented nationally, McLaughlin said. But omicron also seems less severe: hospitalization rates are lower, some people have fewer symptoms and hospital stays are shorter with patients having less severe symptoms.
By Monday, 79 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alaska — a fraction of the roughly 250 COVID-19 patients in the state’s hospitals during the previous delta variant-driven surge. But while the omicron variant has been shown to be less severe than previous variants of COVID-19 in many patients, Kosin said it may not take a large number of hospitalized patients to overwhelm the healthcare system if many staff members are missing work due to COVID-19 infections or exposures.
He said the state could be back in the same place it was this past fall, during the height of the delta surge which placed severe strain on hospitals.
“We can slip into that pretty quickly if omicron is spreading as fast as it is and if it takes out a lot of staff,” Kosin said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Meanwhile, demand for testing seemed to continue this week, as nearly 100 people waited in line for a COVID-19 test at the Alaska Airlines Center midday Monday in Anchorage.
The major surge in cases means many Alaskans are wanting tests, and the system is strained primarily among staff to do tests and over-the-counter at-home tests, said state pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins.
Turnaround time is still around 24 to 48 for results, he said. Plus swabs and other testing materials are not currently in short supply. Cutchins also encouraged people to look beyond drive-through testing sites, noting other options like primary care providers as well as tests that you can swab and send back to a lab.
He said that Alaskans should be, “thinking about the other options, but also understanding just the magnitude of the surge we’re in right now is larger than anything we’ve seen so far.”