More than 500 medical staffers around the state are not working because of COVID-19 as coronavirus-related hospitalizations reached another new high as of Monday.
Cases reported over the weekend — 745 Saturday and 654 Sunday — marked the highest and second-highest daily numbers in the state since the pandemic began in March. The state has reported weeks of climbing case numbers and rising death tolls across Alaska.
The aggressive spread of the virus is taking a toll on the state’s medical staffing.
An informal poll of Alaska’s hospitals and nursing homes revealed that as of last Friday there were more than 530 health-care workers unable to do their jobs due to either a positive COVID-19 test, a close exposure to someone who tested positive, or quarantine related to travel.
That’s according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, the organization that conducted the poll.
The association did a “back of the envelope” calculation after asking facilities around the state how many employees were out either for 10-day isolations after testing positive or 14-day quarantines for close contact or travel, according to senior vice president Jeannie Monk. It wasn’t immediately clear how many employees the state’s health-care facilities have in total.
About half, or 255, work at hospitals in Anchorage or Mat-Su, Monk said. Another 238 work outside those places. Roughly 40 of the workers are at nursing homes.
The work force reduction is significant, and means that other staffers have to fill in behind their missing colleagues, pulling extra shifts with fewer people — working harder under already stressful conditions, she said.
Alaska’s hospitals are managing to keep up with the increasing patient loads, Monk said. But the high weekend numbers mean more patients hitting hospitals in two weeks.
“The health-care system right now, we’re OK. We’re not closing facilities, we’re not turning people away,” she said. “But the trend is what’s very worrisome.”
Since March, 98 Alaskans with COVID-19 have died and one nonresident has died. Alaska’s overall death rate per capita remains among the lowest in the country.
Hospitalizations reached a new high Monday as the state reported 121 patients with COVID-19. Another 22 people who were hospitalized were suspected to have COVID-19. Health officials have stressed for weeks that the rising case numbers could overwhelm Alaska’s hospitals struggling with staffing capacity.
One order specifically addresses rural concerns about travelers bringing in the virus: the state is recommending that anyone from a rural community who spends three days hours or less on the road system or the state ferry system get a COVID-19 test five days after returning home. Anyone who spends more than three days should get tested within three days (72 hours) of returning to rural communities. If the person isn’t tested, they should practice strict social distancing for two weeks, the order says.
The 72-hour standard reflects how long generally it takes to get test results back, state officials said at a Monday briefing.
The changes came about as a result of discussions with rural leaders and health organizations, which requested state support to make sure people knew how important it was to protect rural places with limited health-care capacity, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said.
Separately, officials at Bethel-based tribal health organization Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. on Monday issued a statement recommending a monthlong regional lockdown due to “exponential” transmission of the virus in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Of the 556 cases reported in Alaska residents, 351 were in Anchorage, five in Chugiak, 35 in Eagle River and one in Girdwood; eight were in Homer, six in Kenai, two in Seward, 12 in Soldotna and one in Sterling; one was in Kodiak; 15 were in Fairbanks and three in North Pole; eight were in Delta Junction; six were in Palmer, one in Sutton-Alpine, and 21 in Wasilla; three were in Nome; two were in Kotzebue; one was in Douglas and eight were in Juneau; one was in Sitka; 39 were in Bethel; one was in Chevak and one in Hooper Bay.
Among communities smaller than 1,000 people that are not named to protect privacy, there were two cases in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough and four in the southern portion of the borough; one was in Kodiak Island Borough; two were in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; one was in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area; one was in Northwest Arctic Borough; 11 were in the Bethel Census Area; and two were in the Kusilvak Census Area.
Another seven cases were reported in nonresidents Sunday, including two in Anchorage, one in Homer, and four in unknown regions, the state reported.
Of the new cases, it is not reported how many patients were showing symptoms of the virus when they tested positive. While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the state health department only represents one person.
The state’s testing positivity as of Monday was 8.31% over a seven-day rolling average. A positivity rate over 5% can indicate high community transmission and not enough testing, health officials have said.