Public health officials warn Anchorage is getting closer to max health care capacity

Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference on July 17, 2020. (Photo from the Mayor’s Facebook page)

Anchorage health officials say the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases in the city is threatening local health capacity.

At the current rate of new cases, the predicted time until Anchorage exceeds its ICU bed capacity has been cut in half, from 20 weeks to 10 weeks, said Christy Lawton, the manager of the city’s public health division.

“There’s a serious concern for the trajectory that we are on, in terms of the health care capacity,” she said at a news conference Friday. “It feels like we are climbing up a very steep cliff and we are approaching a point that we could really tip over.”  

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According to state data on Friday, 63 of Anchorage’s 92 ICU beds were occupied with both COVID and non-COVID patients. As of Thursday, Lawton said, 21 people in Anchorage were hospitalized who are either suspected or confirmed to have the disease. 

Thomas Hennessy is an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His team has been modeling the progress of the pandemic in Alaska. In early June, Anchorage’s growth rate indicated the city had 20 weeks until it reached ICU capacity. With the recent surge in cases, Hennessy’s team predicts Anchorage could run out of ICU beds by Sept. 22, a little under 10 weeks from now.

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Hennessy said the model does not account for any additional cases Anchorage may have to take on from other communities or parts of rural Alaska where medical resources aren’t sufficient. Those cases would further limit Anchorage’s capacity, and shorten the window to decrease the spread, he said.

“In addition to more cases and more hospitalizations, the epidemic is accelerating,” he said. “That means we have to take stronger action. And the longer we wait, the stronger the action will have to be and the narrower that window will be.”

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the administration is working with community partners to develop new policies to help slow the spread of the virus.

“To see ways we can very narrowly target the restrictions that are in place,” he said. “There would be area restrictions, size limitations, those are the things that we’re contemplating doing.”

Berkowitz said they expect to release new coronavirus policies, and potentially new orders, next week. He noted that they will work to minimize any economic harm caused by new restrictions. The mayor continued to urge residents to wear masks in public and maintain the physical distancing that people observed at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We will never know if we did too much too early,” he said. “But we’ll definitely know if we did too little too late.”

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at Read more about Kavitha here.

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