Anchorage hospitals could be overwhelmed in 8 weeks if COVID cases rise unchecked, epidemiologist says

COVID-19 testing site in Juneau.
COVID-19 testing site in Juneau.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 28, 2020 at 7:08 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage hospitals could be overwhelmed in eight weeks if COVID-19 cases continue rising at their current trajectory, according to “conservative” estimates by University of Alaska Anchorage epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Hennessy.

“We’ve never been closer to exceeding our health care capacity during the epidemic,” Hennessy said at a hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee on Tuesday.

Hennessy’s team at UAA projected in early-June that Anchorage had 16-20 weeks before its hospitals would be overwhelmed, a buffer that was considered manageable. Six weeks later and a surge of COVID cases has seen hospitalizations for the virus increase.

“What we are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is not working,” Hennessy said.

Last month there were four patients hospitalized across Alaska with COVID. As of Sunday, there were 36 patients.

Dr. Nick Papacostas, an emergency room doctor at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, said hospitalizations had risen by 60% in the past week. He said there may be enough available beds but the key limitation is staffing.

“If we allow the health care system to be overwhelmed, patients that may have survived will die despite aggressive care because there is not enough human capital to take care of them,” Papacostas said.

COVID transmission rates would need to drop by roughly 30% in the next eight weeks to ensure Anchorage’s health care capacity isn’t overwhelmed, said Jason Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

The concern with rising case numbers isn’t limited to Anchorage. Dr. Ellen Hodges with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. said Southwest Alaska would lack the capacity to cope with a major surge in COVID.

Hodges asked,“If all the ICU beds are full of Anchorage patients, where will my patients go?”

To ease the burden on Alaska’s health care system, the callers from Alaska’s medical community to the House committee said action needed to be taken now to curb the spread of the virus.

Hennessy suggested implementing a statewide mask mandate, limiting the size of group gatherings and implementing restrictions across Alaska for how many people could gather in bars or restaurants. “The time to take effective statewide action is now,” he said.

The governor has resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate, saying decisions on whether to implement tighter COVID restrictions would be left up to local governments.

Commissioner Adam Crum of the Department of Health and Social Services defended the Dunleavy administration’s record. He said Alaska had followed advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat COVID-19.

Crum also described how public health concerns needed to be balanced against life returning somewhat to normal during the pandemic. “We have to make sure that people have the chance to move around, and we encouraged Alaskans to go outside,” he said.

The doctors calling in to the committee hearing said implementing tougher restrictions now would help Alaska in the long term. “The longer we delay, the more severe the shutdown needs to be to slow things,” Hennessy said.

Kosin told the committee that individual Alaskans have to change their actions to help drop transmission rates. “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,” he said.

correction: An earlier version of this article said there had recently been 36 patients in ICU beds across Alaska. There had recently been 36 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across Alaska.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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