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Alaska Hospital Leaders Warn Of Hospital Bed Shortage

Katie Basile

Leaders of Alaska’s largest hospitals say that a steep rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations is straining a health care system that’s already struggling with staffing shortages and a burned out workforce. 

In a July 27 news conference organized by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, the group’s CEO, Jared Kosin, said that many Alaska hospitals, especially in Anchorage, are at or near capacity. 

He said that COVID-19 hospitalizations have reached December 2020 levels, and that the increase comes as hospitals are already dealing with the usual summer uptick in patients, plus hiring challenges.

“At this rate, we're tracking towards a significant care event. And on the downside here, the health care system is a far more fragile state than it was before. We have less room, we have less staff, and we have a burned out workforce. On the upside, we have an effective tool in play and that's the vaccine,” Kosin said.

Dan Winkelman, head of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said that if Anchorage hospitals become overwhelmed, it creates big challenges for rural hospitals that would normally send their sickest patients to the city. 

“It's déjà vu all over again, unfortunately. We're kind of starting off like it was last fall, at least out here in the Y-K Delta, and that’s very concerning,” Winkelman said.

COVID-19 cases jumped in the Y-K Delta last week to the highest level they’ve been in four months. Last week, YKHC announced 70 new cases and two hospitalizations due to the virus. 

Alaska’s rise in coronavirus patients mirrors a national spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, driven largely by the highly contagious delta variant infecting unvaccinated people. 

Winkelman and other hospital executives pleaded with Alaskans to get vaccinated, but public health officials have been struggling for weeks to boost Alaska’s stalling vaccination rates. The Y-K Delta’s vaccination rates have hovered around 50% of the total population for months. Winkelman said that to boost those numbers, the vaccinated half of the population should become vaccine ambassadors. 

“So you can share with your friends and family if you're vaccinated, the positive experience that you've had in getting that vaccine, how easy it was, how quick it was, how safe it was, your experience after getting the vaccine, whether or not you had any side effects. You can share that with your friends and family who were unvaccinated. And people will listen to their trusted sources,” Winkelman said.

Winkelman also said that some people who are hesitant about taking the vaccine change their minds once the virus hits close to home. He urged people to get vaccinated before it gets to that point.

“What we've been seeing is that, for those who are unvaccinated, they've been waiting. And then we'll get a large response of people who want to get vaccinated in the village when they have an active outbreak. For some people, that's going to be too late,” Winkelman said.

Like elsewhere in the country, Alaskans currently hospitalized with the coronavirus are generally unvaccinated, sicker, and between the ages of 30 and 55.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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