Nurses Melissa Pancoast and Kathi Edgell work shifts at the intesive care unit at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna on Sept. 22. October was the deadliest month so far for COVID-19 deaths at CPH, with 11 of 30 deaths that have taken place at the hospital since the beginning of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Chief Nursing Officer Karen Scoggins)

Nurses Melissa Pancoast and Kathi Edgell work shifts at the intesive care unit at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna on Sept. 22. October was the deadliest month so far for COVID-19 deaths at CPH, with 11 of 30 deaths that have taken place at the hospital since the beginning of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Chief Nursing Officer Karen Scoggins)

‘The deadliest month we’ve had’

One-third of total COVID deaths at CPH took place in the last month.

Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna has reported 30 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020. More than one-third of them have been this month.

Bruce Richards, the external affairs director at Central Peninsula Hospital, said in October alone there have been 11 patients who have died from COVID complications.

“It’s the deadliest month we’ve had,” he said Monday.

There was a COVID death Sunday, one on Saturday, and two on Oct. 20 — to name just a fraction of this month’s fatalities. Richards also confirmed CPH also recently lost a staff member to COVID complications.

State data shows that COVID has killed 678 Alaskans since the pandemic began over a year and a half ago — the deadliest surge occurring over just the last few months.

According to data by the state Department of Health and Social Services, the most COVID deaths reported statewide in a single day during the winter 2020 surge was 30 on Dec. 24.

On Sept. 23, there were 39.

State officials said during a press briefing last week that year-to-date information also shows that COVID has been the third-leading underlying cause of death among Alaskans since the beginning of the year.

In addition to record-breaking COVID deaths, CPH had 31 hospitalized COVID patients Monday morning — 28 of them unvaccinated — accounting for 50% of the whole facility.

This is the most COVID patients CPH has ever seen in a single day, he said.

“We are up to the max, beyond the max,” Richards said. “We have people all over.”

The hospital had its overflow space open on Monday, as well as patients doubled up in four different rooms.

“There’s a lot of activity,” Richards said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

The number of total patients at CPH — including non-COVID inpatients — also reached an all-time high Monday, at 62. The hospital has 49 regularly licensed beds.

Richards said Monday that even though health care workers at CPH have been feeling the effects of an overcapacity, they continue to offer the best care to patients they can.

“I’m just so impressed with what’s going on here … the staff is so amazingly resilient,” he said.

To help with the influx of hospitalizations across the state, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and officials with the DHSS launched a program to contract health care workers from the Lower 48.

Richards said CPH had 21 additional employees Monday through the program, which has helped alleviate some of the strain. The hospital was operating at 127% on Monday morning.

“I shudder to think where we’d be if we didn’t have them,” he said.

Five of the 678 deaths were reported by the state on Monday, which contribute to the more than 736,000 COVID deaths nationwide. The number of people who have died of COVID in the United States now exceeds the entire population of the state of Alaska, which was 733,391 according to the 2020 census.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said during last week’s press briefing that children and dependents have borne part of the brunt of the pandemic as their parents and guardians have died from COVID complications.

“It’s a tragic and very important thing,” Castrodale said. “I mean, the misery of COVID has been pretty extensive throughout the country.”

She said that while the DHSS doesn’t currently have Alaska-specific data totaling how many kids or dependents have lost a caregiver to COVID, it’s something they are working on calculating with different state departments.

“We’re working with our Women’s Children’s and Family Health colleagues to figure out a way to quantify that, and more importantly, to help with interventions and support for those families,” Castrodale said.

The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported earlier this month that more than 140,000 children nationwide — approximately one in 500 — have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID, deeming COVID-associated orphanhood a “hidden pandemic.”

In addition to the five newly reported deaths on Monday, the state also announced 1,686 positive COVID cases from over the weekend as Alaska remained at a high alert level — with an estimated seven-day rolling average of 660.9 cases per 100,000 people across the state.

The threshold for high alert level is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people. Even though the seven-day average has continued to drop in recent weeks, the state is still surpassing the high alert metric more than six times over.

Monday’s new case count included 59 in Soldotna, 54 in Kenai, 24 in Homer, 16 in Sterling, nine in the Kenai Peninsula Borough North, seven in Nikiski, six in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South and three in Seward.

Statewide, there were 238 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Monday, with 34 of them on ventilators.

At CPH there were seven patients total on ventilators, four of them because of COVID complications.

Richards said the hospital filed a resource request with the state on Monday to attain more ventilators. The facility currently has 14, eight of which are combination CPAP and BIPAP airway pressure and non-invasive ventilation machines.

Health officials widely agree that choosing to get vaccinated against COVID is the single best way to avoid serious illness, hospitalization and death from the virus altogether.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir) as a COVID treatment for adults and some children. Additionally, the FDA has issued an emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibody intravenous infusions for adults and most children 12 and older.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, now marketed as Comirnaty, received full approval by the FDA for anyone 16 and older in August. Pfizer is also still available via emergency use authorization in accordance to FDA guidelines for kids 12 to 15 years old.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen shots are FDA approved for emergency use for anyone 18 and older.

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

Additionally, 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, 59.9% of everyone 12 and up was fully vaccinated against COVID as of Monday. Another 64.7% had received at least one shot.

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

As of Monday, 50.1% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated and another 54% had received at least one dose. The only census area to have a lower vaccination rate was the Matanuska-Susitna region at 43.1%.

Since some Alaskans have received booster doses, the DHSS issued a disclaimer that vaccine rate data may be an overestimation.

Getting a COVID 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 $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.

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

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