Hospital overflow sites remain at ‘ready,’ but officials worry about staffing

An open gym with cots on the floor
The Alternate Care Site established in the Alaska Airlines Center as a potential overflow site for area hospitals in Anchorage amid coronavirus emergency planning (Audrey Gray, Municipality of Anchorage)

The hospital overflow site at Alaska Airlines Center can be ready to use within 48 hours, according to a state health official.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing. State data showed just five ICU beds available in Anchorage Thursday, the lowest level so far during the pandemic. The state isn’t preparing the overflow facility just yet. But, if it does, there is a big concern: staffing. 

“We have all these alternate care sites in theory, and they’re ready to go. But the question is: will we have staffing?” said Jared Kosin, director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association at a Thursday press conference. 

That question is especially critical due to the susceptibility of healthcare workers to COVID spread within a hospital. 

RELATED: As coronavirus infections surge across the state, Alaska finds itself at ‘a tipping point’

Back in April, the Alaska Airlines Center in the U-Med area was converted into an overflow site in case hospitals were overloaded with COVID-19 patients. Another facility at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks is also in use.

Neither were ever used for medical treatment, but throughout the summer, the Alaska Airlines Center never went back to its original purpose as a sports center, said Heidi Hedberg, director of Public Health at the Department of Health and Social Services.

“If you were to go there, you would walk in and to curtains and bed and pull, you know, for electricity. And so we have nurse’s stations, that’s what we consider a ‘warm,’ ready status,” she said. 

The state needs about two days to implement the staffing, medicine and laundry services necessary to operate the center. 

Hedberg and Kosin say that the state has some options for recruiting more workers. The state has a database of licensed healthcare workers who are retired or not working for another reason who can be called on in an emergency. 

“We’re always recruiting for new licensed health care professionals into Alaska Respond, especially individuals that just retired and they’re not working anymore, still have their license,” said Hedberg

The Alaska Respond program is part of the Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals, a federally mandated program for emergency situations. 

Alaska also has a system for requesting workers from other states including federal programs like the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and HHS’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team. Healthcare workers work in the state regularly, but stress on other states’ healthcare systems due to rising case counts there could make that more difficult. 

Finally, Hedberg says, Alaska has a partnership with non-profits, notably Samaritan’s Purse, which previously provided healthcare workers to Bristol Bay during the fishing season. The state has continued to be in contact with Samaritan’s Purse, which has offered services if needed.

RELATED: Samaritan’s Purse delivers 30-bed field hospital to Bristol Bay Borough

But with COVID-19 cases surging around the nation and hospital availability changing within the state daily, figuring out from where to recruit workers is a moving target. Hedberg says health officials with the Unified Command are talking to hospital officials on a daily basis to assess the need. 

“There’s options out there. And so what we want to do is keep all options on the table, and constantly revisit those options,” she said. 

If staffing gets to critical levels, hospitals can cancel elective procedures to save bed space and to reassign staff. They can also transfer patients to out of state hospitals, or even different hospitals in the state. 

“Now we’re saying, can you look beyond that and can you do a patient transfer, from Fairbanks to Central (Peninsula Hospital), as an example, or from Bethel to Central Pen …  Because typically, all patients come to Anchorage, but we do have other hospitals that do have capacity,” she said. 

But the most effective way to keep hospital space open is to keep people out of the hospitals in the first place by wearing a mask and social distancing, says Hedberg.