To cope with COVID overload, Anchorage hospitals delay surgeries

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

Hospitals in Southcentral Alaska are maxed out caring for COVID patients and have had to postpone surgeries to cope with the strain.

Alaska Native Medical Center Administrator Bob Onders said between 15 and 20% of hospital beds are filled with COVID patients, but they are sicker than COVID patients were during the last peak and they require a lot of resources.  

“Last week, we had hard discussions on whether we needed to reschedule colon cancer resections, prostate cancer resections, neurosurgery cases, because these people need to have the surgeries done in a timely manner, but we were very close to not having staffing,” Onders said.

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Near the start of the pandemic, Gov. Mike Dunleavy imposed a ban on elective procedures, in part to preserve personal protective equipment. This time, the delays are sporadic. Hospitals decide day by day, shift by shift, whether they have the staff and beds to keep the surgery schedule.

Outpatient procedures are usually unaffected, since they don’t require as many resources or overnight care. Operations that might be put off include vascular surgery for a heart bypass, cancerous tumor removal or joint replacement, Onders said. It’s a heavy decision to reschedule them.

“Total joint (replacement) for someone who is living in rural Alaska, it’s pretty critical to get those done prior to snow and ice season,” he said.

RELATED: A frustrated Mat-Su doctor implored Alaskans to get vaccinated. The surprise: They listened.

For four days in July and August, Providence Alaska Medical Center had to postpone elective procedures that required hospitalization. Alaska Regional Hospital had to cancel about a dozen surgeries this month because the hospital was full. 

Jared Kosin, CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Homes Association, said hospitals throughout Southcentral Alaska are at or near capacity.

“Yeah, we’re not in a good place,” he said. “And the numbers that keep coming out each day are definitely not in our favor. So we’re doing everything we can to keep up with demand and stay afloat here.”

Kosin pointed out that the vast majority of COVID patients in the hospital are unvaccinated. 

“This is completely avoidable, and the way we avoid it is by getting vaccinated,” he said.

According to the latest state data, 121 COVID patients are in Alaska hospitals, with 28 on ventilators. Fifty-four percent of Alaskans over 12 are fully vaccinated.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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