Planners in Anchorage brace for surge of COVID cases with more hospital space, mortuary preparation

City Manager Bill Falsey speaking during a public briefing on the municipality’s coronavirus response held at Alaska Public Media on March 16th.

Anticipating a swell in the number of Alaskans infected with the coronavirus, officials in Anchorage are racing to bring more medical beds online, scrounging for equipment and even preparing potential mortuary spaces.

Planners say they have been taking aggressive preventative steps that may have already reduced the number of medical emergencies and deaths. However, they are desperate for the public’s help mitigating the virus’s spread.

On Tuesday, emergency managers gave an update on how the city is preparing for the influx of COVID-19 cases they anticipate will hit hospitals in the weeks ahead. As of that afternoon, the municipality had roughly half of all the state’s total cases, 61 of 119.

The city has moved its Emergency Operation Center into the expansive Midtown Loussac Library, which, like most civic institutions, is currently closed to the public.

Catch up on the latest news on coronavirus in Alaska.

City Manager Bill Falsey ran down the municipality’s four main priorities in its emergency planning: Protecting the vulnerable, flattening the curve of coronavirus transmissions, expanding healthcare capacity, and providing some measure of economic relief for residents.

In terms of policies to protect vulnerable individuals, the city moved quickly with non-profit partners to relocate much of its emergency shelter capacity to a sports complex where they could provide people with more space, resources, and hygienic conditions. The new arrangement has the potential to house up to 480 people, although in recent nights the number has been closer to 300, fluctuating as high as “370-plus,” according to Falsey.

“That solution seems to be working pretty well,” he said.

RELATED: Alaska Airlines Center set to house 150 patients as planners prepare for surge of cases

The city is contracting with a private company to do health screenings for COVID-19 symptoms when people enter the complex.

A significant amount of resources at this point are being put toward slowing the spread of the disease among the public as officials try to expand medical capacity for area hospitals. The city, university, and healthcare providers have set up the Alaska Airlines Center as an overflow space should hospitals begin reaching their capacity. But emergency managers are looking for more spaces to serve the same purpose should they exhaust those extra 150 beds.

“To see if there’s more build-out that we can put in place,” Falsey said. “Again, to pre-position rather than plan catch-up.”

The city’s health department is doing more contact tracing, mapping virus transmissions between people, noting when an infected person has been in contact with others, and alerting them they may have been exposed. To do that, Falsey said, the municipality is enlisting dozens of school nurses.

“By the end of the day, I believe we will have trained up and on-boarded 24 of those school district nurses. And we have plans to add an additional 50,” he said. “We take it as part of our mission to be two, three, four steps down the road. That’s a capacity we’re looking to beef up now, so that we can be ahead of the curve instead of trying to catch up.”

So far, the city’s expanding contact tracing has generally shown frequent transmission between family members.

“Often we will have a patient who has tested positive, and then all of their family members become persons under investigation, and then in short order those persons may test positive as well,” Falsey said. “So there’s that kind of clustering.”

Calls for personal protective equipment, or PPE, have been answered by community members, Falsey said, with tens-of-thousands of rubber gloves donated, among other supplies. But there are still shortages, for example in N95 protective masks, which are used and discarded at a rapid rate under normal protocols. Officials are getting some equipment like visors and hand sanitizer from non-traditional sources.

RELATED: Anchorage man faces fines for allegedly price-gouging N95 masks in lead up to pandemic

“We are this week taking our first delivery of 17 gallons of home-brew hand sanitizer from Cook Inlet Distillery, which in normal times makes artisinal rum,” Falsey said.

He added that he hopes to be able to unleash the creative power of Alaskans who have volunteered to sew face masks, once more reliable designs and materials can be obtained.

Still, emergency officials are making plans for the worst case scenarios that might occur. Researchers modeling outcomes had no preventative steps been taken believe as many as 5,800 people in Anchorage could have died from the virus this summer. Falsey said school and business closures, combined with early calls for residents to limit movement, may have mitigated that scenario. But officials are still drafting plans for mass casualties.

“Part of our job here in the Emergency Operations Center, is preparing for the worst while hoping for the best,” he said, “We do have a unit of people who are spending their day contacting mortuaries and finding out what kind of cold storage we have for those who have passed away, and what kind of cremation capabilities we have.”

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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