Alaska reports over 1,300 new COVID-19 cases, breaking single-day record high again

Top health officials describe threats, attacks against health care and public health workers
Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 10:43 AM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 23, 2021 at 4:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For the second day in a row, Alaska has broken the record for the highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported in a single day.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 1,330 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, 1,285 of which are among Alaska residents. The state had just broken the record on Wednesday after reporting 1,251 new COVID-19 infections.

The previous record, which now holds the third highest count, had a total number of 1,095 cases for residents and nonresidents on Sept. 15.

The state also reported seven additional COVID-19 related deaths, bringing the total number of Alaska resident deaths to 473. Fifteen nonresidents have also died with COVID-19 while in Alaska.

According to the state health department, the people who died recently were a Fairbanks man in his 80s, a Fairbanks man in his 70s, a Fairbanks woman in her 30s, a North Pole woman in her 60s, a North Pole man in his 50s, a Palmer man in his 70s and an Anchorage man in his 60s.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients remain high in Alaska as well. By Thursday, the state’s hospital data dashboard showed that as of Wednesday, 209 people infected by the virus are being hospitalized in Alaska. Thirty-four people, both COVID-positive and those suspected of having the virus, are on ventilators.

This is a significant jump compared to earlier this summer when just 19 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in early July, though the record number of hospitalizations was reported last week.

The hospital data dashboard also showed that, as of Wednesday, there were 20 adult ICU beds left open statewide and seven left available in Anchorage. The state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, continues to operate under crisis standards of care as its resources and staff are being overwhelmed. The policy allows treatment and resources to be prioritized for patients who stand the best chance of benefitting from them.

The state enabled crisis care standards for all hospitals to give them support and a framework for treatment should they choose to implement those standards at a facility. This includes things like help transferring patients between facilities. Rural Alaska hospitals have been struggling to transfer patients to larger hospitals, which are operating at or near capacity.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced on Wednesday that it has activated crisis standards of care statewide, to help all Alaska hospitals as they’re faced with an increase in COVID-19 patients and staffing shortages. Also on Wednesday, Dunleavy announced that starting next week, the more than 470 health care personnel Alaska requested through a federal agency will start arriving in the state to help temporarily relieve the pressure on hospitals.

Alaska health care workers aren’t just facing challenges inside hospitals as the influx of COVID-19 patients strains resources and capacity — they are also facing threats and attacks from residents in an environment that has been highly politicized when it comes to questions of whether to get vaccinated or wear face coverings. Top Alaska health officials said during a virtual media availability on Thursday that reports of this behavior has increased.

“We are also seeing and hearing more and more stories of violence towards healthcare workers, including our public health workers, that has been incredibly disheartening and frustrating to see amid burnout,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink.

She said the state’s public health team has “literally been under attack,” and she asked the public for patience and kindness. Zink explained that many national pharmacies have stopped asking customers whether they want a COVID-19 vaccine “because they’ve seen people who are coming into the pharmacies becoming so angry that they have stopped asking that question.”

“We see many triage nurses in the emergency department also afraid to ask that question because patients have become violent towards them,” Zink said. “... We have had reports from health care providers who have spoken out at local meetings either being spit at or receiving threatening letters in the mail regarding their work or them sharing kind of their medical input.”

Sarah Hargrave, a regional nurse manager with the state health department, also detailed negative interactions public health nurses have been having people.

“We’ve definitely had, throughout the pandemic, a handful of people when we do contact tracing that are really, you know, belligerent, disrespectful, very, very aggressive over the phone,” Hargrave said. “That’s been true the entire time for a small minority of folks that we talk to, but it has grown significantly in this surge.”

Hargrave said public nurses have been followed out of community meetings, “being yelled at.”

“One of our public health centers was vandalized this week” she said. “There are a number of things going on that just aren’t true to the spirit of Alaskans.”

Zink said in the virtual meeting that burnout is often a system failure rather than a personal failure on the part of health care workers. The way to ease that burnout, she said, is to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Zink also said she worries that the longer this surge goes on, the more impact it will have on the state’s overall health care system and the harder it will be to rebound even after cases diminish.

“I would also state that, in talking with other states, it primarily looks like with COVID and with these surges, it’s really the ICU capacity that becomes the most limited and strained,” she said. “... Many of these patients can spend anywhere from days to months in the hospital, so I do anticipate that we will see hospital capacity strained for months as a result of the current surge that we’re seeing.”

Alaska’s current surge in COVID-19 is being largely driven by the highly contagious delta variant, which according to the most recent situation report from the Alaska Sequencing Consortium, made up 97% of all Alaska COVID-19 cases that were sequenced the week beginning Aug. 22.

State data also shows that the majority of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Alaska are among people who are not fully vaccinated. The state reports data on vaccine breakthrough cases, or cases of COVID-19 that occur in people who are fully vaccinated. The most recent monthly COVID-19 update from the state Section of Epidemiology shows that 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the month of July were among unvaccinated people.

The data in that report shows that, in the month of April, just over 5% of COVID-19 cases happened in people who were already fully vaccinated. With the rise in the delta variant, that grew to 29.6% of cases in the month of July.

The health department’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that 58.3% of all eligible Alaskans age 12 and older are now fully vaccinated and 62.7% have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The Kenai Peninsula Borough and Matanuska-Susitna Borough remain the two least vaccinated of the state’s major regions, respectively.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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