As Anchorage doctors described making unprecedented choices on patient care amid the state’s worst COVID-19 surge yet, Mayor Dave Bronson this week attacked some of the city’s hospitals for requiring vaccines.
Following the state’s announcement on Wednesday that Alaska is activating crisis standards of care for hospitals statewide, Bronson thanked the governor for “taking practical action to get our hospitals the help they need.”
Bronson also denounced vaccine mandates at hospitals:
“The next step is to work together and hit the pause button on the impending, unnecessary, and harmful firings of healthcare workers who do not accept mandated vaccinations,” Bronson said in the written statement on social media.
The mayor has long opposed COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates and earlier this month said he “will not comply” with President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate.
Last weekend, the mayor and members of his administration attended an hours-long, invitation-only meeting in the Assembly chambers where a group of health care workers and other residents spoke in opposition to vaccine requirements.
Alaska is experiencing the highest case rates ever in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it currently has the highest case rate per capita in the nation. Alaska hospitals are struggling with staff shortages and record numbers of COVID-19 patients. The state on Friday reported a record of more than 1,700 infections and that a total of 514 residents have died.
Doctors in Anchorage have described being forced to treat patients using limited resources, and making choices like deciding which patient gets an ICU bed or who will receive dialysis.
“We’re in a crisis,” said Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence’s chief medical officer.
Workers at Providence are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18. At Alaska Native Medical Center, the deadline is Oct. 15. Alaska Regional Hospital has not implemented a vaccine requirement.
“We recognize the only way to end this crisis is to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Vaccination is the safest, most effective way to do that,” Providence spokesman Mikal Canfield said.
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium spokeswoman Shirley Young said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified health care employers such as Alaska Native Medical Center as key to helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“ANTHC takes its responsibility in minimizing the spread of COVID-19 seriously. A fully vaccinated workforce is necessary for a safe workplace for both employees and patients,” Young said.
The tribal health consortium is only considering medical exemption requests, Young said. At Providence, staff can apply for a religious exemption or a medical exemption, Canfield said.
Hours listening to workers against vaccine requirements
Bronson’s office, in a written statement, said that some medical staff are facing discrimination, harassment and bullying because they do not want to take the vaccine. In an interview on Wednesday, Bronson claimed it is contributing to staffing shortages at hospitals.
Hospitals have said that vaccine requirements for workers are not contributing to current staffing issues; the vaccine requirements are not yet in effect at Providence and Alaska Native Medical Center.
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said Alaska health care workers have faced hostility and threats from COVID-19 patients and others, saying, “our public health team has literally been under attack.” Some workers have stopped asking whether patients have been vaccinated due to hostile or violent responses, she said.
COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and millions of people have been vaccinated safely, the CDC reports. Serious adverse events after vaccination are rare. For example, severe allergic reactions occur in about two to five people per 1 million vaccinated in the U.S.
Bronson said that he believes 25% to 30% of employees will leave their jobs over the vaccine requirements at hospitals such as Providence and Alaska Native Medical Center. He cited anecdotal evidence, including the accounts from health care workers, and news reports of staff resigning in other states over vaccine mandates.
“They’ve been here for a year and a half for us, doing the toughest work probably you can imagine in modern society. And now we’re going to take, possibly 20 or 30% of them, and cast them aside,” Bronson said. “They lose the ability to provide for their kids. Lose the ability to pay their bills because they believe something. And it seems to me, no one except me is listening to them in this city.”
Providence projects that only 1% to 3% of its workforce is at risk of losing employment or leaving, according Bernstein, the hospital’s chief medical officer. The hospital based its projections on observations from other health care systems, he said.
“We’re prepared that we may lose some people, but we don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near something like 20% and it has not affected our staffing yet,” Bernstein said.
The meeting Bronson attended last Saturday was not publicly noticed, and attendees had been invited by Assembly member Jamie Allard. Allard did not return phone calls from the Daily News to ask about the meeting, but told the Alaska Landmine that she had planned an invite-only meeting to speak with residents who would be fired from their jobs if they do not abide by COVID-19 policies.
A four-and-a-half-hour video recording of the meeting was posted to the mayor’s YouTube channel, composed of health care workers and other residents opposed to pending COVID-19 vaccination requirements at hospitals and other places.
At one point in the meeting, Bronson’s human resources director, Niki Tshibaka, asked those in attendance a series of questions, telling them to stand and clap if the answer is yes.
“Please stand and clap if you believe that the statements that about there not being enough beds or staffing for beds is inaccurate,” Tshibaka said at one point.
The video of the meeting shows multiple people standing and clapping in response.
Bernstein of Providence said that over the last few weeks, some patients in the hospital’s emergency room have needed an ICU bed, and there has not been one available.
In one situation, “we had five or six patients in our emergency room who needed to be in intensive care beds,” Bernstein said. “Fortunately, we can provide pretty high level care in the emergency room. But it’s not optimal.”
Bernstein also said that Providence has been delaying or postponing some elective surgeries that require any kind of inpatient bed at the hospital. Surgeries that require ICU beds are reviewed on a daily basis, he said. At one point, a cardiac surgeon had 19 patients on hold for their surgeries.
“We’re very much limiting surgeries in patients that need ICU beds,” Bernstein said.
‘I have doctors that tell me that ivermectin is quite successful’
Earlier this month, a different group of health care workers attended an Anchorage Assembly meeting and testified before the mayor and the Assembly, describing the situation as a crisis and saying they were “terrified” of not having enough resources to serve patients.
Some were members of Providence’s Medical Executive Committee, and included those who provide care in ICUs. They shared concerns over the COVID-19 patient surge, calling on city leaders to do more and for residents to get vaccinated.
At the beginning of the Saturday meeting, Bronson said he was there to listen and capture information and testimony from health care workers, teachers and corporate workers who “have been threatened or are being threatened with the loss of your jobs” due to vaccine requirements.
“Testimony that you took the vaccine under duress is incredibly valid testimony for this,” Bronson told attendees. “We’re just here to listen in and find out what’s going on, because we sure had a sense that the health care industry, the professionals that treat patients, you were universal in your support of mandatory masks and mandatory vaccines. Well, that logic is getting turned on its head here. I’m a little bit surprised. I’m rethinking some things here because of what I’m hearing.”
This week, Bronson toured Alaska Regional Hospital, which has not implemented a vaccine requirement.
“I appreciate all of Alaska’s healthcare providers who are our heroes in providing emergency care to those in need,” Bronson said in a statement posted to social media following the tour.
In the Wednesday interview, Bronson criticized the general health protocol of sending COVID-19 positive people home to isolate rather than practicing “early intervention.”
“You should go home with a pocket full of prescriptions,” he said, later speaking about a person in a hospital with COVID-19 asking for ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and being denied.
“I’m not a doctor, but I have doctors that tell me that ivermectin is quite successful. I can’t say that I believe them. I’m a pilot. I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV,” Bronson said. “But I believe that very trained, expert people are telling me something that does not satisfy, does not jive with the common narrative.”
Hydroxychloroquine does not benefit adults hospitalized with COVID-19, a recent National Institutes of Health study found, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against using ivermectin as treatment.
Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, on Wednesday said that at this time, there is no proven benefit to taking ivermectin. Vaccination is the best way to fight the virus, and monoclonal antibody treatment can help those who do contract it to stay out of the hospital, she said.