How Providence workers fought to contain ‘lightning speed’ coronavirus at site of Alaska’s largest outbreak

Connie Mast is the director of nursing at the Providence Transitional Care Center, the site of Alaska’s largest coronavirus outbreak. Mast has worked for Providence for 18 years. Photographed outside of her workplace on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

A phone call at 4:45 one morning in late May woke up Connie Mast.

The director of nursing at the Providence Transitional Care Center sat up in bed.

“They said that we have a positive patient,” Mast recalled. “The first positive patient.”

The coronavirus had gotten into the Anchorage transitional center, a place where patients often live for weeks as they recover from surgery, injury or serious illness. Mast said she knew if one patient had become infected, others must have too. 

“It’s impossible that it’s only one,” she said. “So I was worried, I’m like, ‘Oh my God. So I know we have one, and there will be more.’”

Suddenly, Mast and her colleagues found themselves on the front line, fighting the infectious disease as one case grew into dozens more. The center quickly became the site of Alaska’s largest coronavirus outbreak. 

“It’s a virus you can’t see and it’s so fast moving,” said Hashi Price, a certified nursing assistant at the center. “It’s lightning speed.”

Hashi Price is a certified nursing assistant at the Providence Transitional Care Center. Price has worked for Providence for 10 years. Photographed outside of her workplace on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Price, a mom of three, had only been back on the job for a few months when the virus found its way inside.

She returned from maternity leave in March. She said she remembers following the news about the coronavirus tearing through long-term care facilities in Washington state — settings so similar to her workplace here. 

“I was scared watching it,” she said. “How fast it was spreading, it scared me.”

Still, she said, she felt good about the precautions the transitional center had put into place early on. Starting in March, staff told visitors they had to stay on the other side of a window if they wanted to see patients. Caregivers went through health screenings. Masks became mandatory for all employees. 

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“I feel like we did a really good job because we kept it out of our facility — even though it was all over — until the end of May,” Price said. 

Meanwhile, outside of the center, Alaska was reopening its economy in May and, by the end of the month, the number of COVID-19 infections started to grow again.

Mast said after the first case turned up at the transitional center, staff locked down the area even more. The center shares a campus with Providence Extended Care, which mostly serves older adults.

Patients had to stay in their rooms. Staff started wearing face shields. Everyone got tested, and then they got tested again and again and again. 

Mast said she prayed before each nasal swab that her result would come back negative.

“I can’t afford to be sick. I know that I will be needed,” she said. “My staff needs me and the patients need me as well.”

Mast and Price never did test positive. But tests over several weeks revealed 47 coronavirus cases among the center’s patients and caregivers — about one in four. Two patients died. 

And, one caregiver at the extended care facility on campus also tested positive.

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Mast said it’s emotional to talk about. 

Price said she tries to stay focused and do her job, and do it well. 

She said some of those infected showed no symptoms. 

“Then we had the ones that got really sick and it’s hard to see,” she said. “They can’t get comfortable and their body hurts all the time.”

Price said she is sure her patients were scared, but they often didn’t show it. Everyone cooperated, she said, and seemed to understand the reasons for the stricter rules. But, she said, she wishes they could see her trying to give them a reassuring smile behind her face mask and shield.

“That part kind of sucks,” she said.

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Price described the center’s employees as close-knit. It’s the type of place, she said, where they would bring in their kids to visit with patients, to talk with them and play games. 

Now, Price said, she’s busy checking in with her colleagues who are at home with COVID-19 infections. 

“I make sure that they’re doing okay and if they need anything, like if they need me to drop them off anything, I can leave it at their door and then run,” she said.

Mast’s and Price’s lives at home have changed too.

Mast started staying in a separate room at her house, and stopped hugging and kissing her two kids.

Price said she immediately takes a shower when she gets home. 

“My kids already know and my husband already knows that they can’t touch me or anything until I’ve already showered and put on fresh, clean clothes,” she said.

After weeks of a rising case count, Providence staff recently said they’re hopeful the virus may finally be contained — or at least close to it. 

A fifth round of testing at the end of June identified no new cases at the center. 

Providence staff say they’re still unsure how the virus first got in. 

Price said after working and living through Alaska’s largest coronavirus outbreak, the advice she’d like to share is: Wear a mask and wash your hands to help protect the community, including some of the city’s most vulnerable — her patients.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.