'Just heartbreaking': Even with ample vaccine, Alaska's doctors are seeing COVID-19 patients die

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May 22—With a mix of sadness and frustration, Dr. Barbara Creighton watched as a number of her Fairbanks Memorial Hospital patients died with COVID-19 in the past few weeks, including a man in his 20s.

None were vaccinated.

Creighton tried to find out why. Some said it was God's will whether they got the virus or not. Others expressed fears of side effects. She saw relatives wrecked by a loved one's choice to forgo the vaccine.

"It's just heartbreaking and devastating to go through all that and watch that happen," she said. "But it is a personal choice. We do all we can to educate them, and then we have to step back and respect that choice. That's all we can do."

All of the Alaskans dying with the virus recently are unvaccinated, state officials say.

About a dozen COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the past three weeks, including four on Tuesday alone, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. They range from a man in his 20s to one older than 80, with half in people in their 50s and 60s.

Seven lived in or near Fairbanks, five in Mat-Su, and one in Anchorage.

"When we didn't have a vaccine, and just knowing how highly contagious this disease is, you could see how people were doing their best not to get it and still getting it," said Dr. Anne Zink, the state's chief medical officer. "But really what you see now in the emergency department and the hospital is people who are not getting vaccinated. Some are getting sick and some unfortunately are dying."

'A free shot'

Physicians around the state describe COVID-19 patients sick enough to be hospitalized who still don't believe in getting vaccinated — or even that the virus is real.

A surge of coronavirus patients over the past month stretched Mat-Su Regional Medical Center's ICU capacity before subsiding recently, according to Dr. Thomas Quimby, the hospital's emergency department medical director.

Quimby said he found it especially difficult to treat several unvaccinated men in their 50s who died with COVID-19 yet suffered from no underlying medical problems, including one who got to the ER in cardiac arrest.

"Which was just really tragic because it just seemed it could have been prevented with a free shot," he said.

Meanwhile, Quimby said, it's getting "exhausting" telling some patients about their COVID-19 diagnosis.

"I still get people, they don't believe me. They tell me I'm lying. They tell me I'm trying to make more money. There's still a lot of conspiratorial misinformation," he said. "Honestly, they decided they weren't going to get a vaccine before there even was a vaccine. It's just really hard to move the needle with them."

Cases rates dropping in Alaska

Alaska's overall coronavirus case rates are dropping, a success story state officials link to the broad availability of COVID-19 vaccine. The first vaccines hit the state in mid-December. The state opened eligibility to anyone 16 and up on March 9, the first in the country to do so.

As of Friday, just under half of Alaskans 16 and up were fully vaccinated. Alaska's average case levels over a 14-day period on Thursday dropped into the intermediate category for the first time since September.

But the pace of vaccine has stalled, especially in Mat-Su, around Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula and in parts of Southeast. Those regions remain in the highest alert category, with more than 10 cases per 100,000 people. An outbreak continues in the Ketchikan area.

An analysis by the Washington Post showed that, when adjusted for unvaccinated people, the national death rate is "roughly the same as it was two months ago and is barely inching down" and hospitalizations are as high as they were three months ago, though case rates are declining.

State health officials are trying to reach out to Alaskans in new ways. Zink said she's traveling to the Kenai Peninsula next week. The first vaccination clinic at a gun show takes place this weekend in Palmer.

That's because, officials say, new COVID-19 cases are occurring largely in unprotected Alaskans, especially in those places where residents for various reasons, including concerns about side effects or safety, are proving reluctant to get vaccinated.

There's also growing concern that the fall could bring a fresh surge of COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people. State health officials this week reported a sharp increase in the presence of a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus in Alaska that also increases vaccine urgency.

More than 360 Alaskans have died with the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020, a tally that began slowing as vaccination rates rose, especially among the elderly and medically compromised.

The numbers are far lower now, but all the deaths recently are in unvaccinated people.

While there are scattered reports of people who get vaccinated but still end up at least briefly hospitalized, only one vaccinated Alaskan has died, an older patient with multiple medical issues, according to Zink. The number of people to die from COVID-19 since December that weren't vaccinated is not 100%, she said, "but it is greater than 99%."

A recent Fairbanks COVID-19 surge

Creighton, at Fairbanks Memorial, said the surge of patients earlier this month forced the hospital to shift to COVID-19 surge plans for the first time since the pandemic began.

"We were pushed to care for these people," she said. "Our respiratory therapy department was amazing in what they could do but ... we were lucky enough to have other hospitals help us. We could transfer to Anchorage because they had space."

At Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, emergency room physician Dr. Nick Papacostas has not had patients die with COVID-19 recently. But he's seen a few unvaccinated people — all under 50 — sick enough to be admitted to the hospital and treated in the ICU.

He doesn't ask them why they chose not to get the vaccine.

"I just kind of very gently say, 'You are sick with COVID, unfortunately. We're going to look after you,'" Papacostas said. "And I hope being critically ill with COVID will help it sink in."

Zink still works six or seven emergency shifts a month at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. She said she's seen some COVID-19 patients who want to get vaccinated but haven't gotten around to it or don't know where to go. Others, however, don't want any part of it.

Zink said she told one patient with breathing problems who needed to be hospitalized that he had tested positive for the virus. "No I didn't," he answered.

On another shift, she admitted people from the same family to the hospital with COVID-19, Zink said. They were grateful for the care but unchanged in their views.

"They were not vaccinated," she said. "They had no intent of getting vaccinated."

Then again, Zink also sees patients who planned to get vaccinated at some point and didn't have the time or didn't know how to get an appointment.

"I hear 'I just hadn't gotten around to it yet, I was going to,'" she said. "That's really motivating for me: What can I do to encourage people to get vaccinated now, so I don't have to see them in the emergency department?"

Anyone 12 and older who lives or works in Alaska can now receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Alaskans can visit covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322 to sign up for a vaccine appointment, and new appointments are added regularly. The phone line is staffed from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

Mat-Su residents can call 907-373-2628 weekdays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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