During his first COVID-19 press briefing since March, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy told Alaskans that measures were being taken to support hospitals facing dwindling staff shortages, high patient entry rates and equipment shortages from supply chain issues, while also urging Alaskans to "seriously consider" being vaccinated to protect themselves from the rapidly spreading delta virus variant.
"This coronavirus is mutating," he said at the top of the briefing. "It's called the delta variant. And it appears to be more infectious ... than the strain we dealt with last fall, earlier this winter."
He stated that before the delta variant became predominant in the state — and the nation — Alaska had begun to put the pandemic behind them.
"But this variant has kind of thrown a curveball not just at us, but everybody in this country and across the world," he said.
The coronavirus was one reason listed for Alaska's currently limited hospital capacity and services.
"The hospital capacity has become very, very constrained here in Alaska," he said.
Contributing to the strain on hospitals is a large number of accidents involving outdoor recreators during the summer, but also a shortage of health care workers in the state, namely respiratory therapists and nurses, as well care attendants, physicians and certified nursing assistants. Dunleavy said that there are fewer people working in hospitals this year than 2020, attributing the decline to retired and fatigued health care workers.
Many of Alaska's health care staff have been working seven days a week, but are experiencing fatigue and burnout, he said.
"And so what we're finding is that it's making it difficult for the hospitals to serve everybody, in a timely manner or the manner you had once thought service would be available at the hospital," Dunleavy said.
Many hospitals are postponing elective surgeries — those deemed non-essential or life-threatening — as well as transferring patients to hospitals where referrals are usually not sent. Some patients are being treated at home under electronic or telephonic monitoring, as opposed to as an inpatient who would take a bed in the facility. Wait times at hospitals can be "substantial" around the state, Dunleavy said.
Heidi Hedburg, the director of the state Division of Public Health, outlined ways for Alaskans to keep themselves safe, as well as measures being taken by state Department of Health and Social Services personnel to support hospitals.
"There's a lot more people that are mixing," Hedburg said. "We are seeing that we have a fatigued workforce in the hospitals. We are also seeing that states just like Alaska with the increase in cases and the increase in hospitalizations."
Alaska's cases have been in the triple-digits since late July. DHSS on Wednesday counted 701 resident cases — the highest tally seen since early December.
Hedburg also advised that Alaskans keep their social circles small and consider wearing a mask when indoors or around people outside of their immediate household.
"These are all layered mitigation strategies that help slow down the transmission of COVID," Hedburg explained, also noting that vaccination continues to be a tool for slowing the spread of the delta variant.
She outlined the infectiousness of the delta strain, saying, "the transmission rate with the delta variant is, if one person has the delta variant, they can transmit it to five to eight people."
DHSS officials have begun working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the General Services Administration to utilize staffing contracts to bring more professionals to Alaska, drawing from pools of retired, licensed health care workers or those willing to travel for their work.
Hedburg said that Oregon also used the same resources and saw "success," and that she hoped the contracts provided relief for Alaska's hospitals, "but we don't know."
Hospitals in the Lower 48 also are experiencing staff shortages and constraints. Many patients from Southeast Alaska are referred to hospitals in Washington, a state also seeing its own capacity limitations, according to Hedburg.
DHSS also is moving toward ordering bulk supplies to distribute to hospitals around the state, while holding frequent meetings with hospitals about the needs being seen within the facilities.
A press release issued from Dunleavy's office prior to the briefing stated that "The state can bulk purchase and share the resources with the hospitals as well as support movement of supplies and medications around the state as needed."
DHSS and the Alaska Department of Law also continue to work to expedite the process of completing background checks for health care workers coming into the state, Hedburg explained.
The expediting of background checks could be made possible through a particular waiver that allows "flexibilities" of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, the DHSS release noted.
"This would allow alternative care sites, urgent care sites and other area of health care delivery to be more efficiently used to relive pressure on the hospitals while still providing care," per the release.
DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said that background checks had been taking two to three days in the past, but that climbed to up to two weeks. Now, the wait time is going down again, according to Crum.
Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink during the briefing said that Alaskans could consider seeing their primary care provider or an urgent care site, as opposed to the emergency room, when they have a minor injury.
Dunleavy also focused on urging Alaskans to talk with their doctors about vaccination against COVID-19.
Throughout the press briefing, Dunleavy said that mask mandates or vaccine mandates will not be put forward from a state level.
Questioned about putting in place mask mandates for state employee workplaces, Dunleavy said that individuals can choose to wear a mask or be vaccinated.
"I understand that a lot of folks are fearful, and my suggestion — I know it's easier to say — is not to be," he said. "Meaning there's a vaccination available. The vaccination, from what we can see, is not 100% foolproof but goes a long way to prevent it."
He also said, "Alaskans have tools available to them, and we just urge the Alaskan public to seriously think about using these tools."
Questioned a handful of times about why he was not using more urgent messaging to encourage vaccination, Dunleavy said "folks have the ability to choose."
"You cross the line in my opinion once you start to force the population of a state to undergo certain medical processes," he explained. "Personally, I'm not ready to cross that line. I don't know if I ever will be ready to cross that line."
In response to another question about vaccination, Dunleavy said that urging Alaskans to communicate with their doctor is "the best strategy."
"This isn't some place in Europe in 1939," he said. "You have conservations with folks."
Dunleavy cited a statistic on the DHSS website on Thursday, which noted that between Aug. 12 and Aug. 25, vaccinations increased by 24.1%, compared to a similar time period (July 15-28) last month.
"... This idea that you're going to force people to undergo a medical procedure, when we just talked about having a 24% vaccination, people aren't stupid," Dunleavy continued. "They aren't."
Dunleavy also said, "They (Alaskans) need to have conversations with their doctors. If they don't, then they have to understand they run the risk of getting infected."
He also outlined the vaccine as a difference between the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
"Although the vaccines aren't 100% foolproof, there's no doubt that they are a gamechanger," he said. "I strongly urge folks to get a vaccination. Talk to their doctor first, but seriously consider doing that."
Hedburg said that the state's public health officials work to "meet people where they're at."
"We need to meet people where they're at," Hedburg. "And everybody has a story. We continue to educate on the science we're seeing. The science is changing."
"If you haven't been vaccinated, consider getting vaccinated," Zink said.
Zink also told Alaskans to "continue to give each other space and grace" during the pandemic.
"This will get better, but we all need to continue to work together to move that direction," Zink said.