Oct. 28—Alaska on Wednesday reported a record number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations, even as daily COVID-19 case counts have begun to level off around the state.
The state also reported 567 new cases and two recent deaths involving an Anchorage man in his 70s and a Fairbanks woman in her 80s or older.
Although Alaska's seven-day case rate has declined from an apparent peak in September, it remains the highest in the country and nearly five times the national average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials say that cases have now plateaued, though they've plateaued at elevated levels reflecting widespread virus transmission in Alaska.
As of Wednesday, hospitals reported having 236 COVID-positive patients, up one from the previous record set on Oct. 21. Nearly a quarter of all hospital patients around the state had COVID-19, the vast majority of whom were unvaccinated. Thirty-three people hospitalized are on ventilators.
The latest hospital numbers reflect the ongoing pressure that the highly contagious delta variant is placing on the state's health care system — and the lengthiness and severity of many COVID-19 hospitalizations.
"The hospitals are still very, very stretched in our ability to be able to provide care," Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical officer, said Wednesday.
"We really saw an uptake at the very beginning of this big surge; a lot of new people being hospitalized," Zink said. "Unfortunately, however, people can remain in the hospital for a long period of time, resulting in the total number of hospitalizations remaining quite high."
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Alaska's largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, is seeing some signs that the situation there is starting to improve despite record hospitalizations statewide, said Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence's chief medical officer.
The boost from out-of-state health care workers has been immensely helpful, he said Wednesday. A triage team stood up earlier this fall to help physicians in scarce resource situations hasn't been needed since Sept. 27, Bernstein said.
In October, "we haven't run into these super difficult decisions where you actually have not enough of something to give to all the people who need it, and you have to choose," Bernstein said. "We've gone a month without having to do that, and my hope is we won't have to go back to that again."
Between Sept. 10 and Sept. 27, that triage team was consulted in about 10 cases, Bernstein said.
Despite recent hopeful signs at the hospital, there is still a ways to go before operations return to normal, Bernstein said. On Tuesday morning, there were about 20 patients being held in the emergency room while they waited for inpatient beds to open up. Staff are still exhausted.
"I think it is better than it was a month ago, but we're still very, very taxed," Bernstein said.
In both July and August — the most recent data available — just 19% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations involved Alaskans who were vaccinated, according to a report compiled by the state health department.
Twenty health care facilities in Alaska still have crisis standards of care activated, which can mean a wide range of things in different places but is ultimately considered a worst-case scenario, and indicates a high strain on facility resources.
"We were in a crisis care committee meeting yesterday, and all the hospitals were just talking about how unusual this is, how stressed they are, and how grateful they are for the extra staff," Zink said, referring to the hundreds of state-contracted Outside health care workers who arrived in Alaska last month to provide relief to hospitals buckling under record counts of COVID-19 patients.
The Outside workers' contracts go until Dec. 22, but there's a possibility of a one-month expansion depending on need. Bernstein, at Providence, expected hospitalizations to start declining by about Thanksgiving, but he said that's just an estimate and it may be too soon to say.
"Hopefully it will start to fall there," he said.
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It was not immediately clear how recently the two deaths reported by the state Wednesday had occurred. Fairbanks Memorial Hospital separately reported the death of a patient in their 60s.
A total of 690 residents and 26 nonresidents in the state have died with the virus. Over the past week, Alaska's death rate per 100,000 is the 10th-highest among U.S. states, but looking at the pandemic overall, Alaska has the fourth-lowest death rate in the country, according to CDC data.
"You can see that this surge has really resulted in more deaths of Alaskans than we had in the previous surge," Zink said. Since the beginning of July, 297 Alaskans have died with COVID-19.
While the state's daily virus counts have plateaued recently, virus-related hospitalizations and deaths typically follow a few weeks behind spikes in cases, and hospital administrators say it may take weeks for a decline in cases to be reflected in hospitalization numbers.
About 64.9% of eligible Alaskans have received at least one vaccine dose, and around 60.1% of eligible Alaskans are considered fully vaccinated.
Statewide Wednesday, 8.8% of tests came back positive based on a seven-day rolling average.