Alaska's Largest Hospital Begins Prioritizing Treatment as COVID Overwhelms Staff

As Alaska's largest hospital sees an overwhelming surge in COVID-19 patients, the medical center enacted crisis standards of care to address the influx, the Associated Press reported. The implementation allows Providence Alaska Medical Center to prioritize treatment resources and care for patients most likely to recover.

The state's population of about 731,000, as designated by U.S. Census Bureau data, has been contending with surging COVID-19 cases spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant. Health officials reported 691 new cases and six recent deaths Tuesday, the AP reported.

Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, chief of staff at Providence Alaska Medical Center, wrote in a Tuesday letter addressed to Alaskans that the hospital no longer has the capability to provide the typical standard of care to every patient.

"The acuity and number of patients now exceeds our resources and our ability to staff beds with skilled caregivers, like nurses and respiratory therapists. We have been forced within our hospital to implement crisis standards of care," Walkinshaw wrote.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Vaccinations in Alaska
Alaska's largest hospital enacted crisis standards of care Tuesday as its sees overwhelming numbers of COVID-19 patients. Registered nurse Robert Orallo administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Blood Bank of Alaska in Anchorage on March 19. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Health officials said statewide that there are 202 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 who are hospitalized, and nine additional patients are under investigation. Officials said 33 of these people are on ventilators.

The percentage of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is 17.5 percent, the state reported.

At Providence, more than 30 percent of the adult patients that are hospitalized have tested positive. This also comes at a normally busy time of the year for Alaska hospitals.

Walkinshaw noted that the state's COVID-19 dashboard, which is routinely updated with numbers related to the virus, "isn't equipped or designed to demonstrate the intricacies of providing medical care during this unprecedented time."

At Providence, one of only three hospitals in a city of about 300,000 residents, officials have developed and enacted procedures to ration medical care and treatments, including dialysis and specialized ventilatory support.

The emergency room is overflowing at Providence, and she said patients wait for hours in their cars to see a doctor for emergency care.

Walkinshaw noted that what happens at the Anchorage hospitals affects the entire state since specialty care can often only be provided in the state's largest city.

"Unfortunately, we are unable to continue to meet this need; we no longer have the staff, the space, or the beds," Walkinshaw wrote. "Due to this scarcity, we are unable to provide lifesaving care to everyone who needs it."

That has left patients across the state sitting in local hospitals since Providence can't accept them for transfer.

"If you or your loved one need specialty care at Providence, such as a cardiologist, trauma surgeon, or a neurosurgeon, we sadly may not have room now. There are no more staffed beds left," she wrote.

Walkinshaw said they expect an increase in COVID-19 cases in the next two to four weeks, causing an already stressful situation to possibly "rapidly progress to a catastrophe," she said.

She said the single most important thing people can do is to get vaccinated. Alaska was the first state to open vaccinations to all residents. As of Monday, 56.5 percent of eligible Alaskans have been vaccinated.

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican who has recovered from COVID-19 and been vaccinated, said employees at Alaska hospitals are working long hours, some have left their jobs and there are capacity concerns.

Dunleavy, who never imposed a statewide mask mandate, has faced criticism in the past from some who say he hasn't come out forcefully enough in support of vaccination.

"I urge, and I hope you guys print this, I strongly urge folks to get a vaccine, strongly urge them to do that," he told reporters Tuesday.

Walkinshaw also asked that everyone wear masks, even if they are vaccinated and avoid unmasked activities. She also urged people who are sick or have been exposed to get tested and asked people to avoid potentially dangers activities and situations that may increase the need for emergency services of medical care.

"Unfortunately, if you are seriously injured, it is possible that there will not be a bed available at our trauma center to save your life," Walkinshaw wrote.

Nurse Prepares COVID Vaccine
As Alaska sees a surge in COVID-19 cases, the state's largest hospital has started to ration health care due to bed shortages. Registered Nurse Morgan James loads a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Blood Bank of Alaska in Anchorage on March 19. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images