As Juneau’s COVID cases skyrocket, hospital staff are testing positive too

A woman sits in a hospital room wearing a face mask, face shield and gown.
A health care provider, wearing several types of personal protective equipment that is being tracked by the State of Alaska, provides care in 2020, for a woman hospitalized in an isolation room in the critical care unit of Bartlett Hospital, in Juneau. As of Aug. 6, 2021, there are four people with COVID-19 being treated at the hospital, two are severely ill and require additional oxygen. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau is seeing more COVID-19 cases among its staff as infections in the capital city rise and the community’s risk level returns to high.

“Our infection rate has increased at the hospital just like it has in the community. And we’ve seen that across the board,” said Charlee Gribbon, Bartlett’s infection preventionist. “The community level infection equals what’s happening in the hospital because we are community members.”

The hospital has a 90% vaccination rate, she said. There are 75 unvaccinated employees spread across departments, from doctors and nurses to mental health clinicians and administrative staff.

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Gribbon said eight health care workers at Bartlett tested positive for COVID-19 in July alone. So far this year, there have been 16 cases. By contrast, in all of 2020, only 12 employees at the hospital tested positive.

A woman and man talk into microphones in a room, they're both wearing headphones.
Charlee Gribbon, infectious disease preventionist from Bartlett Regional Hospital, and Adam Crum, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner, answer questions about coronavirus for a KTOO News special program on March 5, 2020, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Gribbon said the uptick is because the delta variant is so much more infectious and because both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can get it. Also, she said, people are mixing socially much more now than in 2020. People arrive on planes, cruise ships come into town and restaurants and summer camps are open.

“I’m monitoring symptoms and testing people on very low symptoms. Our testing threshold is very low — so what that translates to … is testing our employees a lot more often,” she said. “So that’s what I’m doing, is testing a lot.”

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Gribbon estimates she tests around 10 employees a day.

The hospital is screening patients and visitors with the same questions it’s been using since the beginning of the pandemic. Masks are still required at all times.

The visitor policy has changed, though. Now patients are allowed only two visitors throughout their hospital stay — and they have to be the same two visitors.

Before, patients were allowed two visitors at a time, but as many different visitors as they liked.

As of Friday, there were four COVID-19 patients at Bartlett. Of those, two were severely ill and required high levels of additional oxygen. If they need to be intubated, they’ll be sent to Anchorage or Seattle for care.

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