Alaska News

Anchorage ICU space limited as Alaska reports 21 COVID-19 deaths and rising hospitalizations

Alaska’s largest hospital on Monday reported no available intensive care beds as the state’s health care system grapples with growing pressure from the ongoing COVID-19 surge linked to the highly contagious omicron variant.

State health officials on Monday also reported 21 more deaths in Alaskans with COVID-19, three of them recent.

Generally, the variant is thought to lead to less severe infections but its impact is being felt in health care worker absences compromising Alaska’s hospital capacity, as well as continued illness, long-term complications, and death.

Together, the state’s two largest hospitals — Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Native Medical Center — on Monday reported limited ICU space, a situation that started several weeks ago with staff outages linked to the virus and worsened recently amid rising hospitalizations of COVID-positive people.

Jeannie Monk, a state hospital association executive, tuned into a regular call with health-care administrators around the state Monday morning after spending the weekend in a world where everything seemed normal, as she put it.

But on that hospital call, Monk said, she heard only fatigue, stress and frustration.

Unprecedented employee outages — one Anchorage facility on Monday reported more than 100 workers out — are hitting not just health professionals but custodians and others, she said.

Some hospitals are pausing all but essential surgeries. A few nursing homes reported not being able to take new admissions because they don’t have enough staff. A shortage of food workers at one hospital shuttered the cafeteria.

“Health care workers are tired, they’re traumatized, they’re beleaguered,” Monk said. “They have been through many surges at this point. And they continue to show up and take care of people with COVID and all of the other things that bring people to a hospital.”

Alaska’s daily case counts showed a slight decline over the weekend, though it’s not clear whether that trend will continue or whether it reflects rising reliance on at-home tests, which aren’t part of state data, or recently limited testing capacity in Anchorage.

[Omicron peak in Alaska could be a few weeks away as new COVID-19 case numbers continue to shatter records]

The combination of rising COVID-19 cases and workers out sick and in isolation are leading to shortages of space at the biggest hospitals in the state in Anchorage, which typically treat the state’s sickest patients. As of Monday morning, there were just six ICU beds available at Anchorage hospitals, where 14% of patients were COVID-positive.

Providence Alaska Medical Center had no available ICU beds as of mid-afternoon Monday, hospital spokesman Mikal Canfield said. Between 80 and 100 employees were out Monday at the hospital, the state’s largest, which often receives patients who need higher levels of care from outlying facilities.

Now the number of patients and staffing shortages “could affect our ability to accept patient transfers from other facilities,” Canfield said in an email.

Alaska Native Medical Center on Monday had just under 300 employees on a “COVID-19 tracking grid at varying stages of recovery, with about 100 who are not yet cleared to return to work” because they have yet to get out of quarantine, spokeswoman Shirley Young said in an email. “In general, the hospital remains at or near capacity regularly.”

As of Monday morning, ANMC had a few open ICU beds, Young said, but that can change quickly through the day.

Alaska Regional Hospital paused visitors last week but otherwise is operating relatively normally, according to spokeswoman Kjerstin Lastufka.

Hospitalizations statewide are still climbing, though not yet to the 200-plus record levels last fall when the delta variant was circulating broadly.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, where Monk serves as senior vice president, was reporting 150 COVID-positive people hospitalized on Monday.

The state on Monday reported 139 COVID-positive Alaskans hospitalized as of Sunday, up from 135 reported Friday, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

It wasn’t clear how many were admitted to the hospital with the virus, as opposed to testing positive while being treated for other medical problems. But public health officials point out that any COVID-positive patient requires more PPE and other time-consuming measures to protect workers and other patients.

The state reported a total of 5,759 new COVID-19 cases in a three-day period from Friday through Sunday including a near-record of 3,083 resident cases Friday. The highest one-day resident tally was 3,282 on Jan. 19. There were 1,490 resident cases reported Saturday and 1,081 Sunday.

The state reported another 105 cases in non-residents during that period.

The virus-related deaths reported Monday included three that occurred recently, after omicron became the dominant variant in Alaska.

Eleven resident deaths in people with the virus occurred in December, according to a health department spokesman. Five occurred in November and two in October. Omicron was first detected here in mid-December.

The people who died were a female resident of Anchorage aged 80 or older; a female resident of Anchorage in her 70s; a male resident of Anchorage in his 70s; a male resident of Anchorage in his 70s; a male resident of Anchorage in his 60s; a male resident of Anchorage in his 50s; a female resident of Anchorage in her 50s; a female resident of Anchorage in her 50s; a male resident of the Copper River Census Area in his 60s; a male resident of Fairbanks in his 60s; a female resident of the Kenai Peninsula aged 80 or older; a male resident of the Kenai Peninsula in his 60s; a female resident of the Kenai Peninsula in her 60s; a female resident of Ketchikan in her 60s; a male resident of Ketchikan in his 60s; a male resident of Ketchikan in his 50s; a male resident of the Northwest Arctic Borough in his 70s; a male resident of Palmer in his 60s; a male resident of Soldotna in his 40s; a female resident of Wasilla aged 80 or older; and a female resident of Wasilla in her 60s.

Alaska on Monday ranked the lowest in the nation for seven-day death rate per 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The state ranked sixth lowest for COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020 after once holding the lowest or near lowest rate.

There have been 1,039 deaths in Alaskans from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Thirty-three nonresidents have died from the virus.

Public health officials continue to emphasize vaccination -- as well as social distancing and masking -- as the best way to combat the omicron variant. As of Monday, just over 61% of residents and military members or veterans over 5 had completed their primary series of vaccinations. Only about a quarter of eligible residents had received booster shots.

The national average for fully vaccinated people is 63%. Alaska ranked 30th among states for fully vaccinated residents on Monday.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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