A sign instructs patients and visitors on the COVID-19 screening process in the River Tower of Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, Alaska, on April 7, 2020. The hospital recently matched the number of hospitalizations reported during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 as a resurgence of COVID-19 is reported across the state. (Peninsula Clarion file)

A sign instructs patients and visitors on the COVID-19 screening process in the River Tower of Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, Alaska, on April 7, 2020. The hospital recently matched the number of hospitalizations reported during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 as a resurgence of COVID-19 is reported across the state. (Peninsula Clarion file)

‘We’ve been super, super busy’

Local hospitalizations reach levels not seen since pandemic’s peak last year

For more than a year and a half, reports have come out every day about the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States, including how many people end up in intensive care units or on a ventilator. But what does that tell people about what it’s actually like to be an inpatient or on a ventilator?

According to Yale Medicine, if the body’s immune system does not fight off the COVID infection, the virus can travel to the lungs and cause acute respiratory distress syndrome — severe inflammation of the lungs — which can make it hard to breathe normally and can be fatal.

If conditions get bad enough, patients may be hooked up to a ventilator — often referred to as life support — which is a machine that helps a person receive oxygen and breathe manually.

Bruce Richards, the external affairs director for the Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, confirmed Monday morning that the clinic’s staff was actively treating 10 patients for COVID-19, which included four in the intensive care unit.

Of those four, Richards said, three were on ventilators. Of the three, one had been intubated to a ventilator for around 25 days.

The first step in hooking up a patient to a ventilator is administering general anesthesia, according to Yale Medicine. Once the patient is unconscious, a medical professional will place a tube into the patient’s nose or mouth and down the windpipe. The tube then connects to the external ventilator machine, which blows oxygen into the lungs.

The National Institutes of Health reported conclusions to a study in January that stated almost half of patients with COVID who received invasive mechanical ventilation died, although variables in the analysis produced a wide range of results.

When patients wake up attached to a ventilator, they can’t speak, cough, swallow or eat. Some even wake up from the anesthesia confused, and try to pull out their endotracheal tube.

According to state data updated on Monday, there were 98 hospitalizations and 18 patients on life-support ventilators across all of Alaska.

Richards said Monday that on July 29 the total number of COVID inpatients at CPH reached a level not seen since last November’s peak in hospitalizations.

“We hit a high of 16 inpatients,” he said, while noting that the total number of COVID-positive people on the central peninsula then was almost twice what it is now.

Over the weekend, Richards said, he thought the emergency room was busier than it had ever been before, with around 70 patients. Not all patients were in the ER because of COVID-related illness, he said.

“At one time we had over 30 people in the ER for our 14 beds,” Richards said. “We’ve been super, super busy.”

New variant

The hospital hasn’t treated this many patients since November 2020, when there were double the number of COVID cases, according to Richards.

Richards said while the state doesn’t divulge which COVID-positive individuals come down with specific strains of the virus, the numbers indicate that there’s a good chance this new spike is due to the highly transmissible delta variant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant accounts for around 82% of the new COVID cases recorded across the country.

The last statewide genomics report indicated that the delta strain is now the most common among new cases in most regions across Alaska. This includes the Gulf Coast area.

The hospital has been admitting elderly people in their 60s and 70s, but Richards said they are seeing younger people in their 40s and 50s as well. Additionally, even younger people have come into the emergency room positive for COVID.

“Seeing (people in their) 40s is … becoming more common,” Richards said.

‘Only defense’

To Richards, it’s “obvious” what needs to happen in order for cases and hospitalizations to drop again — people need to get vaccinated. Richards said it’s the peninsula’s “only defense.”

COVID-19 vaccination rates have been stagnating on the central peninsula, where only about 33% of those 12 and up have been vaccinated.

Statewide, 52.4% of Alaskans ages 12 and older have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough that number drops to 44.5%. Only one census region has a lower vaccination rate than the Kenai — the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, at 36.7%.

Officials urge vaccinations

Health and government officials are urging every eligible Alaskan to get their vaccines.

In a video on Twitter last week, U.S. Representative Don Young said that the sooner Alaskans get their shots the sooner the pandemic will be under control.

“There is much misinformation out there so I’ll be very clear on my position: These shots are safe, effective and they cost you nothing,” Young said in the video. “We must take this seriously. That is why I chose to get vaccinated, and I think you should do the same.”

In April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that while there would be no statewide vaccine mandate, he hoped Alaskans would consider getting their shots.

“I’m getting the vaccine because I want to help Alaska businesses get back to work, and I want to do the things that we all love,” he said in a video for the Department of Health and Social Services.

From July 30 through Aug. 1, DHSS reported 703 new resident COVID cases statewide. In the same time frame, the peninsula reported 98 cases.

Every region in the state has moved into the high-risk category, where the CDC now once again recommends all people — despite vaccination status — wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Where to get vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

Vaccines are available through the Kenai Fire Department by calling 907-283-8270, by walk-in every week at the Soldotna Wednesday Market, and for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

Many different businesses on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart and Walgreens, offer vaccines.

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’s 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, Capstone Clinic and Central Peninsula Urgent Care.

In Soldotna, testing is available at the Central Peninsula Hospital, 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.

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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