As data lags, hospitals say surge in COVID-19 patients has already started

The entrance sign for the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

While the number Alaska’s hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 has risen gradually, operators of Anchorage emergency rooms say they’ve seen a marked increase in patients with symptoms of the disease over the last week. 

Dr. David Scordino, the director of the emergency department at Alaska Regional Hospital, said that it’s hard to quantify the rise in the number of patients, but it’s noticeable. And he’s seen the demographics of patients shift. 

“The trends we’re seeing are fitting with that national trends of increasing numbers in the 20s and 30s. But the hospitalizations remain in the slightly older range,” he said. 

Patients who come in with COVID symptoms are tested and get their results back within an hour if they are showing severe symptoms, or up to a couple of days, but there are still delays in reporting on the state’s dashboard. 

Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state health department, said there are also other reasons hospitalization data could be behind by several days:

“It could be that that person tests, goes home, starts to feel crummy and then later is hospitalized and so we might not know about that hospitalization and it might not necessarily occur right in the beginning of that person’s illness and so there could be a lag on that,” she said in a call with reporters Thursday. 

While hospitals are better prepared with personal protective equipment and bed capacity than they were during the first rise in case counts in April and May, there are still concerns about the statewide spread of the disease, as cases continue to mount. 

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Dr. Robert Onders is the medical director at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He says his hospital is preparing an alternative care site that may include up to 60 beds — much like the one currently at the Alaska Airlines Center — to free up bed space for COVID patients for the tribal health system if a statewide surge hits. 

“I think as our capacity becomes challenged that has ripple effects in rural Alaska, we want to keep our capacity available so that rural hospitals can transfer patients that need to come into Anchorage for other care and stay within the tribal health system,” he said. 

Alaska reported another day of high case counts on Thursday with 75 new cases, a third of them tied to Anchorage. But, there were no new hospitalizations reported. 

Doctors also say they’re still expecting a bump in cases related to the Fourth of July holiday on top of the surge that’s already underway. That spike could be seen by next week or as far away as August, they say, with a rise in hospitalizations and deaths possible weeks after that.