Alaska reports daily COVID records as Anchorage hospitals feel pinch of omicron

A person in a hospital gown walks around a parked car in a snowy parking lot
A COVID-19 testing site on C Street run by Capstone on Jan. 7, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska recorded back-to-back record-breaking daily COVID-19 case counts on Monday and Tuesday as the omicron variant squeezes hospital capacity and staffing in Anchorage, where most of the infections have been reported.

The state health department tallied 1,967 new COVID cases on Monday and 2,414 cases on Tuesday, smashing records set last week. 

So far, the state hasn’t reported a similar spike in hospitalizations, but some Anchorage hospitals say they are seeing more COVID patients and more staff are calling in sick, forcing them to make tough decisions about patient care and visitors.

Alaska’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, said it will scale back its visitation policy to its strictest level beginning Thursday, and the Alaska Native Medical Center is considering declaring crisis standards of care. 

“We’re getting by but it’s very, very close to needing to do that,” said Dr. Holly Alfrey, chief medical officer at ANMC. 

RELATED: Anchorage ER doctor says omicron presents a whole new set of challenges

ANMC was among 20 hospitals that activated crisis standards — seen as a worse-case scenario — this fall in response to the delta variant-driven surge.

Alfrey said ANMC has a bed capacity of 176 beds, but has been above 180 patients recently. That’s forced it to close certain departments temporarily, or hold patients in the emergency room longer while it waits for ICU beds to open up.

“We got pretty high before, but I don’t recall that our census was consistently as high as it is right now,” she said. 

While omicron appears to be a main driver of the staffing shortages, other respiratory diseases like pneumonia, flu, and RSV, have also been rising as people have loosened earlier masking and distancing practices, said Alfrey. 

At Providence, the number of staff calling in sick has tripled in the first 12 days of January compared to a month ago, according to data provided by spokesperson Mikal Canfield. He said the hospital would switch back to its strictest visitation policy on Thursday after over a month on an intermediate level. The stricter policy limits visitation to one family member in most cases, or none in the COVID unit in most cases. 

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Jared Kosin, director of the Alaska Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said hospitals across the state are seeing a rapid uptick in staff calling out sick because of omicron, but it’s too early to say how severe the surge will get. 

“If a major portion of staff are out, even to manage regular ordinary healthcare services becomes really challenging,” he said. “So it’ll be really interesting to see how this plays out over the coming days and really over the next couple of weeks.”

There were 80 COVID patients in Alaska hospitals on Wednesday, up from 70 on Friday, according to state health department data. During the peak of the fall delta surge, over 200 Alaskans were hospitalized with COVID.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that the Alaska Native Medical Center says patients being held longer in its emergency room are still receiving the same level of care that they would in the ICU.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.