As hospitals become increasingly strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers are also juggling staffing and space shortages, state officials said during a press conference Thursday.
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said hospitals are busy, but that she doesn’t want to deter people from getting the care they need.
“While things are busy, and things are stressed, we still want people who think that they’re experiencing a life-threatening emergency to get care,” she said.
Zink emphasized that getting care “at the appropriate level” is important in a time when hospitals are overrun with patients.
“If something’s been going on for a long time, that’s a really good case to call your primary care doctor,” she said. “Using urgent cares, walk-in clinics, other things like that can also really help to reduce the strain on hospitals.”
There was a statewide total of 209 COVID-related hospitalizations reported Monday, with 37 of the patients on ventilators. The percentage of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is 17.7%, the state reported Monday.
At Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna on Monday there were 19 total COVID patients — 17 of them unvaccinated — and six in the intensive care unit. One patient was on a ventilator.
Zink said some Alaska hospitals are also recruiting health care professionals from other states to help ease the staffing shortage burden.
“We also see that we are reliant on staffing coming from the Lower 48 for travel nurses and others,” she said. “To have 20% of your hospital filled with … one disease or ailment is a big deal. We don’t get 20% of our hospitals filled with heart attacks or even traumas.”
Some health care professionals, Zink said, are even choosing to leave the field as the pandemic rages on.
“Health care providers are exhausted. I have seen three of my favorite nurses quit in the last month,” she said.
Heidi Hedberg, the director of Public Health, said the state is working to contract outside health care workers to help manage hospitalizations.
“The goal is the week of the 27th of this month,” she said. “That is the goal … that the contractor would be able to provide some health care workers.”
According to Our World in Data, U.S. COVID hospitalizations are on a slight downward trajectory from the spike in July and August, but the health care system continues to feel the effects of the pandemic as more cases are reported daily.
The Department of Health and Social Services reported another 2,108 COVID cases over the weekend, with 94 of them on the Kenai Peninsula.
There were also two peninsula deaths — a Homer woman in her 60s and an Anchor Point man in his 60s. Additionally, the state reported two Anchorage deaths of women in their 60s, and the death of a Sitka male in his 50s.
Monday’s total statewide death toll hit 459 since the pandemic began.
State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin reiterated during last Thursday’s briefing that COVID vaccines — layered with mitigation strategies like distancing and masking — are the most effective way to keep hospitalizations and deaths minimal.
“Just for perspective, as of two days ago, Alaska ranked 34th in the country for vaccination coverage rates,” he said. “If we want to get these case rates down we need to be vigilant about not only making sure we get more Alaskans vaccinated, but also that Alaskans continue to participate in non-pharmaceutical interventions.”
As of Monday, 57.5% of Alaskans 12 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and another 62.4% had taken at least one dose.
On the Kenai Peninsula, 48.2% of residents 12 and older were vaccinated, with 51.7% having received at least one shot.
Zink said that although the vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing COVID contraction, they protect against serious cases.
“Unfortunately, if people experience the disease without the protection of a vaccine, they have a higher risk of getting quite sick — and requiring hospitalization — and death,” she said. “And that’s why we continue to encourage vaccination for both those who have previously had COVID-19 as well as those who have not yet.”
Along with protecting oneself, Zink emphasized that getting vaccinated will help ease the strain hospitals and their employees feel every day.
“They’re just tired, they’re burnt out … and there’s only so long that they can sustain this,” she said.
Getting a COVID vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
As an incentive to get the jab, 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, 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.
COVID 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.
This story has been updated.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.