BETHEL – Healthcare providers from across Alaska testified today (July 28th, 2020) to the House Health and Social Services Committee that they are bracing for a wave of COVID-19 infections as the state continues to experience a rapid increase in the number of positive cases.
Several leaders from the health sector urged the State of Alaska to promptly enact measures that will help slow the rate of infections, perhaps with opt-out provisions for local communities.
Dr. Thomas Hennessy, an epidemiologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, cautioned that the ICU capacity in Anchorage is projected to be overwhelmed by mid-September and was one of a few officials to testify that relying on hospital capacity to make policy decisions is ill-advised.
As an example, he pointed out that while there may be enough ventilators on paper, staffing limitations mean there likely would be no one to run many of the life-saving machines.
“Having ventilators without the skilled people to run them is akin to having a bunch of airplanes full of important cargo need to get someplace urgently, but not having pilots,” Hennessy said. “We need a return of the bold leadership now to stem the rising tide of cases. We’ve never been closer to exceeding our healthcare capacity at any point in this pandemic.”
“We need to wake up. We need to wear masks. We need to wash our hands. We need to practice social distancing. It has to happen,” added Jared Kosin, President of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
Dr. Ellen Hodges is Chief of Staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which serves 48 villages, 58 tribes, and 28,000 Alaskans in the Bethel and Kusilvak census areas. She told the committee that her region and other rural communities will have no place to send patients for advanced care if there is a local surge of COVID-19 cases and Anchorage facilities are beyond capacity.
Hodges said, “The models that are used to predict the increase in cases mostly point to an increase in community spread followed by hospital admissions and then ICU admissions and then deaths. I don’t think we can bank on Alaska having a different trajectory than the rest of the country. It is clear that something must be done to interrupt our current trajectory.”
Two viable solutions, she said, are enforcement support for travel measures in small communities and a statewide measure for face coverings that allows communities to opt out.
Dr. Robert Onders, Medical Director for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium added, “We need to make decisions now to change course. I believe Alaska’s geography presents a unique advantage to stopping the spread of COVID-19. We lost the early advantage we had in Alaska. Currently, we’re on the same trajectory as the rest of the United States.”
“Today we heard resoundingly from physicians and epidemiologists that the time to act is now,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel), chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee. “Alaska is quickly approaching a point of no return in the spread and harmful impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of Alaskans. Evidence shows us, as experts stated today, that patchwork regulations do not work well to help turn the tide. The clear solution is for the State of Alaska to promptly enact statewide protective measures that will ultimately save lives, protect our economy, and uphold the well-being of our frontline medical professionals. With COVID-19, time is not on our side.”