Anchorage officials on Friday described a grim outlook surrounding COVID-19 heading into the colder months, with concerns over intensive care unit staffing, multiple cases tied to an assisted living facility and a large jump in new cases over the past week.
“We need to do more in this community to make sure that we can be even safer than we have been,” Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said during a Friday briefing. “We are teetering right now on an edge.”
The Municipality of Anchorage averaged 70 new cases each day last week, compared to an average of 48 new cases per day the previous week. The number of new cases reported in the last 10 days — the amount of time someone is considered to still be infectious — reflected an increase of 47% compared with the number of infectious cases from the previous week, said Janet Johnston, epidemiologist at the Anchorage Health Department.
With a “steep and consistent increase in cases over the past 10 days,” the health department tipped its epidemiology metric — which tracks cases and hospitalizations among COVID-19 patients — into the red zone. The other metrics, which include health care capacity and public health capacity, remained at the yellow level.
Anchorage could run out of its intensive care unit beds, which are reserved for the most critically ill patients, as early as the end of this month or into November, Johnston said. That could change depending on the number of ICU staff available.
“Hospitals continue to report that they’re tight on staffed ICU beds and they’re looking into staffing plans to increase the number of available beds,” Johnston said.
Usually, hospitals in Anchorage could pull from staff outside the city, Berkowitz said. But as other places also deal with COVID-19, there are fewer staff available.
“That’s why there’s increasing concern about staffing level — we don’t have the cushion that we once did,” he said.
The health department’s medical officer, Dr. Bruce Chandler, said the city is contending “with a large cluster of staff and residents in an assisted living home.”
While Chandler didn’t name the facility, he said that he wasn’t aware of deaths associated with the cluster. Almost every week, a new facility in Anchorage has reported cases among staff and residents, usually starting among staff, he said.
Amid an ongoing outbreak in the homeless community, the city recorded 24 new cases in the last week and a half, said Heather Harris, Anchorage Health Department director. The city plans to begin testing the unsheltered population on Tuesday, she said.
The Anchorage School District on Thursday announced that it was delaying the start of in-person classes due to widespread community transmission of the virus. When asked whether he was considering anything to specifically bring cases low enough to allow for in-person school to resume, Berkowitz said he was “looking at options.”
“But we want to do things that are effective," Berkowitz said. "We want to do things that have community acceptance, I think that’s part of the challenge of working our way through COVID,” he said.
The mayor said he wanted to step up enforcement of pandemic precautions and asked businesses “to do the right thing” in order to avoid more restrictions.
Johnston said she thought that as restrictions relaxed, the mindset across the city changed, “that people are really feeling like it’s not as big a challenge as it was previously — which, from my perspective, I find very frustrating because we have so many more cases than we had last March.”