COVID-19 cases stress Anchorage intensive care units

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The intensive care unit system in Alaska’s largest city is near capacity amid a rise in COVID-19 cases during what is typically a busy season for hospitals.

Some patients are having to wait longer for emergency care, or ending up in beds outside the ICU, as a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant swamps critical care units in Anchorage, a medical hub, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

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The situation is compounded by short staffing, with nurses facing pressure to work extra shifts and high-level managers handling bedside care, the outlet reported.

“It’s relentless. There’s no let up,” said Jacque Quantrille, director of critical care nursing at Alaska Native Medical Center. “When you walk in the door and you come to work there is no down time. … The level of illness for these patients, we’re seeing them far sicker for far longer. They’re requiring more resources.”

Figures reported Tuesday by the state health department showed six available adult ICU beds in Anchorage and 35 non-ICU beds.

Alaska hospitals are already busy in the summertime with an increase in people visiting and exploring the outdoors.

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On Monday, more than five times as many people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state than in early July. The state health agency on Tuesday reported five recent deaths related to COVID-19, bringing the total since the pandemic’s start to 400.

States across the country are grappling with similar issues. Alaska health care providers say hospitals in Seattle are so full that hospitals in southeast Alaska are having trouble transferring patients there. Seattle would typically be an option, given some communities’ relative proximity to the city. Ketchikan, for example, is closer to Seattle than Anchorage.

Last year, Alaska required testing for travelers, and some cities, including Anchorage, required masks and enacted other virus-related restrictions. Testing around travel is no longer required, though state health officials recommend it.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month released a statement urging Alaskans to take “extra precautionary measures to lighten the load on our hospitals,” such as driving safely, wearing a life jacket or “choosing to take advantage of a free COVID-19 vaccine, which I have done.”

Anchorage no longer requires masks.

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Hospital officials said they don’t expect capacity issues to resolve soon without broader vaccination or masking. About 53% of Alaskans 12 or older have been fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.

This week, patients who tested positive for COVID-19 made up nearly one-third of those in Anchorage ICUs.

Dr. Ryan Webb, who sees patients at Providence Alaska Medical Center, said hospitals are coordinating to make sure people get the care they need.

“But the system itself is under a great deal more stress than I’ve ever seen before,” Webb said. “What I see is a very stressed ICU system statewide. And the way that manifests is we are getting more frequent calls from outlying hospitals that are facing the same pressures we are in terms of increasing number of very ill patients.”

If there isn’t ICU space, critically ill patients sometimes are housed in emergency rooms, leading to longer wait times for emergency care for others. Hospitals outside Anchorage are busy, too.

“The heart attacks are waiting longer. The strokes are waiting longer. The kiddo with the laceration on their hand is waiting longer,” said Dr. Anne Zink, who is Alaska’s chief medical officer and works emergency department shifts at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer.

Zink said the hospital recently had three patients referred from a hospital in Bethel. “I have never had a referral from Bethel in Mat-Su,” she said. “Ever.”

Bethel hospital managers who need to transfer a patient for ICU-level care usually first contact the Alaska Native Medical Center, then the other Anchorage-area hospitals, according to a spokesperson for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which operates the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital in Bethel.

If those hospitals are full, Bethel health officials seek options elsewhere in Alaska or in Seattle.

Dr. Tim Ballard, chief medical officer at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, said the hospital is managing high patient loads but “barely treading water.” It recently used its ambulance bay to isolate people with COVID-19 symptoms who came to the emergency room.

“Essentially every day at some point our facility has no availability, and our staff make it work every day,” he said. “It’s sort of a cycle of admissions versus discharges.”

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