Bethel doctor advises residents to avoid physical risks as hospital beds grow scarce

Two people ride on an ATV toward a white pickup truck.
Riders drive an ATV along a Bethel road. (Dean Swope/KYUK)

A Bethel doctor is advising residents to avoid taking physical risks right now, including riding ATVs.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges says if Alaskans get hurt, they might not be able to receive adequate health care as surging COVID-19 cases destabilize the state’s health care system.

“In a word, it is in crisis. Perhaps collapsing,” said Hodges during a Bethel City Council meeting on Tuesday. 

Hodges said that there are few, if any, staffed intensive care unit beds remaining in the state due to the continuing spike in COVID-19 cases. That means YKHC is struggling to find beds for all patients, not just those diagnosed with COVID-19. To decrease the chance of needing health care, Hodges warned against any activity that could pose a physical risk.

“Don’t ride your bike or ATV,” she said. “Wear your seatbelt and drive the speed limit. Take good care of your health, taking all your prescribed medications.”

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Hodges made her statements the same day that doctors at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage issued a letter saying the hospital had no more staffed beds available. Providence is rationing medical care and treatments. The doctors’ letter said the hospital cannot accept any more critically sick or injured patients, including from other hospitals. That means it is not accepting patients who need to be transferred from rural communities, like those in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. According to state data, the Alaska Native Medical Center is also not accepting transfer patients.

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YKHC does not have intensive care unit beds and cannot provide the advanced health care offered in Anchorage hospitals. For now, health care providers in Bethel will do what they can with what they have, said Hodges.

“We will do our very best to provide health care for you, but we are limited by what is available in this state,” she said.

Rising COVID-19 cases, driven largely by unvaccinated individuals, are straining resources. On Monday, the state reported its highest ever number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and, on Wednesday, the daily tally of coronavirus cases hit a record high.

Infections are expected to rise over the coming weeks. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, cases rose by 5.4% over the past week. Over half the region’s cases are in children under age 18. Many are too young to get vaccinated.

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Hodges issued a list of instructions for how to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and avoid further burdening the health system.

“First of all, if you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated immediately. The vaccine is very safe and highly effective, and it is the best way to prevent COVID,” Hodges said.

Second, she said, if you feel sick, get tested for COVID-19 and isolate immediately.

Third, wear a mask at all times when not with your household members, she said.

And lastly, support health care workers and be kind to one another.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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