Hospitals such as those in Kodiak, Nome and Bethel are encountering

Alaska’s larger, urban hospitals are so crowded with COVID-19 patients that some smaller, outlying facilities are struggling to transfer seriously ill people or scrambling to care for them in place.

Surging COVID-19 cases around the state continued this week with no sign of hitting a peak as the highly infectious delta variant continues to drive new cases and hospitalizations. Hospitals, especially in Anchorage and Mat-Su, describe a crisis-level crush of staffing shortages and complicated coronavirus patient cases.

The state on Friday reported two more deaths of people with the virus — an Anchorage woman in her 40s and a Dillingham-area man in his 70s — and hit another new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard. A total of 444 Alaskans have died with the virus, as well as 14 people from out of state.

Hospitals such as those in Kodiak, Nome and Bethel are encountering unprecedented challenges as coronavirus-related capacity problems down the line ripple into a domino effect of stalled transfer requests.

Nome’s hospital doesn’t even have any COVID-19 patients, but it still faces “a COVID problem,” as Dr. Tim Lemaire, a family practitioner and member of the Norton Sound Health Corp. incident command team, put it. “We don’t have COVID here but we can’t get our regular patients … care because of COVID everywhere else.”
Alaska hospital beds occupied by patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Sept 10.
Trying to move patients with heart attacks, strokes or injuries from four-wheeler accidents, Norton Sound Regional Hospital sometimes has to call three or four facilities to find an open bed, at least once moving a patient all the way to Seattle to get them into an ICU.

Lemaire participates in a new statewide daily morning call that health officials host. Friday’s call was not encouraging, especially the news from Anchorage: full intensive-care units, with COVID-positive patients in half the beds; surgery recovery areas used for COVID patients; patients held in the ER because regular beds were full.

“Man, it’s bleak,” he said.

In Kodiak, hospital officials during a briefing Thursday said they initiated “surge” plans for all patient types in response to continued transfer delays for non-COVID patients and the possible inability to do any transfers in the future. Typically, that can mean bracing to handle complex patients who can’t get care elsewhere.

Bethel’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital has some COVID-19 patients, but providers generally care for them in house, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. chief of staff Dr. Ellen Hodges said Friday.

It’s the others — cardiac patients, car wreck victims, people with potentially fatal sepsis — who are hard to transfer, Hodges said. For the past few weeks, it’s taken 12 hours, at most 24, to find ICU beds for people in need of critical care because the health organization’s referral hospital, Alaska Native Medical Center, is usually full.

She’s taken to warning friends to stay off bikes unless they wear helmets and put their seat belts on because there’s nowhere for them to go if they get seriously injured.

The only thing that will reduce the pressure on the system is for case counts to go down, Hodges said.

“It feels like there’s this world inside the hospital and those of us who work in health care of desperation and helplessness,” she said. “And then there’s another world out there of people who maybe don’t understand or realize how dire the situation is.”

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