(Image courtesy CDC)

(Image courtesy CDC)

‘A palpable, noticeable difference in our hospitals’

Health care workers from the Lower 48 have been deployed to help Alaska’s COVID crisis.

State officials said additional health care staff have already helped alleviate some of Alaska’s hospital overburden, as the state attempts to rebound from its worst COVID-19 surge yet.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during a press briefing last Thursday that 422 health care professionals from the Lower 48 have accepted temporary reassignment in the state to help during Alaska’s COVID crisis.

“First of all (I) really want to say thank you to the health care workers who have been here from the very beginning, who have worked through challenging times,” Zink said. “And then (a) big thanks to the health care teams who are coming up … it’s a palpable, noticeable difference in our hospitals right now because of this deployment.”

The program was introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month, and it costs $87 million — 100% reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Bruce Richards, the external affairs director at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, said Monday that even though the facility had to open up overflow space, additional health care workers through the FEMA program have made a difference.

“Having additional resources is helpful because we’re already understaffed,” Richards said.

As of Monday, there were 13 health care workers at CPH through the FEMA program.

The need for increased staff in many of Alaska’s overrun hospitals comes as the state’s COVID numbers remain high.

Last week state officials said they were optimistic that COVID was trending downward, but that the state still has a lot of virus circulating.

The state Department of Health and Social Services reported 16 more COVID deaths Tuesday — including two Kenai men in their 50s and 60s — pushing the statewide total to 590 since the pandemic began.

Some of the state deaths are likely due to data backlog.

There have been more 716,000 COVID deaths nationwide, according to the New York Times, and Alaska remains the state with the highest number of new per capita cases in the country.

DHSS announced another 475 positive COVID cases Tuesday. Alaska remained at a high alert level — with an estimated seven-day rolling average of 779.94 cases per 100,000 people across the state.

The threshold for high alert level is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people. The state has surpassed that metric more than seven times over.

Tuesday’s new case count included 10 in Soldotna, nine in Kenai, six in Homer, four in Sterling, two in Anchor Point and one each in the Kenai Peninsula Boroughs North and South and Nikiski.

There were a total of 199 statewide hospitalizations Tuesday.

At CPH, there were 22 COVID patients hospitalized Tuesday morning — 18 unvaccinated — with four both in the intensive care unit and on ventilators. The facility as a whole was operating at 116% capacity.

Although seven-day alert levels have been falling steadily in recent weeks, Alaska is still considered a high transmission zone.

And as hospitals are still bearing the brunt of the surge, officials say additional health care professionals have been beneficial so far.

“It’s been great to hear from the hospitals (about) their frontline stories,” Zink said during last Thursday’s press briefing. “I think (they’re) really helping patient care as well as the morale overall.”

Officials continue to urge Alaskans to get vaccinated against COVID in order to reduce their risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, now marketed as the Comirnaty, received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for anyone 16 and older in August.

Pfizer is still available via emergency use authorization in accordance to FDA guidelines for kids 12 to 15 years old, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shots have an EUA for anyone 18 and older.

Additionally, the FDA approved a third dose of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use in immunocompromised people in August.

And in September the FDA approved a booster dose for the Pfizer shot. They are available for anyone 65 years or older, anyone 18 and older living in long-term care facilities, anyone 18 and older with underlying health conditions and anyone 18 and older working in high-risk settings.

Primary care providers can determine eligibility for an initial vaccine series, as well as immunocompromised third shots and booster doses.

Across the state, 58.7% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Another 63.9% had received at least one shot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s vaccination rate continues to lag behind many other regions.

As of Tuesday, 49.2% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 53.2% had received at least one dose.

Full vaccination rates may be an overestimation as booster doses start to roll out, according to the DHSS.

Getting a vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

As an incentive to get the shots, the DHSS and Alaska Chamber of Commerce launched a lottery program for newly vaccinated eligible residents that offers weekly winners a prize of at least $49,000. To find out the eligibility requirements or to enter into the giveaway sweepstakes, visit giveakashot.com. The lottery lasts through Oct. 30.

Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart and Walgreens, and the Kenai Fire Department offer vaccines. They are also available for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

Additionally, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy hosts a walk-in clinic in its strip mall storefront at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Vaccination appointments can also be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.

A map of vaccine providers can be found on DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.

People who would like assistance with scheduling a vaccination appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. The central peninsula call center can be reached at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center can be reached at 907-235-4636. The Seward call center can be reached at 907-224-4636.

Testing locations

Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.

In Kenai, testing is available at the Chignik Lagoon Clinic, Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center and Capstone Clinic.

In Soldotna, testing is available at the Peninsula Community Health Center, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Walgreens and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Medical Center, Chugachmiut-North Star Health Clinic, Glacier Family Medicine, Seward Community Health Center and the Safeway pharmacy. Starting Sept. 14, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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