Hospitals say a disaster declaration would help Alaska cope with record hospitalizations

The entrance of the ER at Alaska Regional Hospital. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

More Alaskans are now hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other time in the pandemic: 152. Hospitals in Southcentral Alaska are in crisis, and the head of the state hospital association wants Gov. Mike Dunleavy to issue a disaster declaration to help ease the pressure.

“Unless you have to go to the hospital right now for something, or you’re actually in that environment, I don’t think you can even begin to comprehend how serious, chaotic and exhausting it is behind the walls right now,” said Jared Kosin, chief executive of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Every time he second-guesses himself — is he overstating the crisis? — he gets an email from a doctor or hospital administrator that illustrates how dire the situation is. They are pleading for help, Kosin said.

“You know, ‘We’re full. We’re trying to figure out how to get a patient placed from rural Alaska to here, but we don’t have any beds. We know Seattle is closed,'” Kosin said. “And this is insane. This is an insane situation upon us. It’s so frustrating that this is just not connecting with more people, the severity of it.”

RELATED: Record COVID-19 hospitalizations strain Alaska health system

Early in the pandemic, the Alaska Airlines Center was stood up as a field hospital. Kosin says that’s not an option now – staffing levels are too low. Hospitals are already rescheduling important surgeries when they don’t have the bed space or staff. If the surge continues, the next step would be to go to a formal disaster mode. That’s the mass casualty and triage scenarios they train for, where many functions of a hospital are repurposed. Kosin says disaster mode is designed for things like earthquakes and plane crashes, where the hospital’s crisis passes in a few days.

“We cannot exist in that environment for long periods of time,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

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To avoid that, the hospital association is trying to lower regulatory hurdles. Kosin wants the governor to declare another public health disaster, to give hospitals more flexibility.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy ended a COVID-19 disaster four months ago, citing among other things, Alaska’s success at keeping people out of the hospital and the state’s vaccination rate. At times last spring Alaska led the nation in vaccinations. Now the state is in 32nd place.

Asked Tuesday if Dunleavy is considering a new declaration, spokesman Jeff Turner referred the question to the Department of Health and Social Services, which did not provide answer to that and other questions by Tuesday evening. Turner also said the governor answered the question at a press conference last week.

RELATED: To cope with COVID overload, Anchorage hospitals delay surgeries

The governor said Thursday a declaration wouldn’t help, that the real problem at the hospitals is a lack of staff.

“I don’t believe the issue that you raised is really the core issue here,” Dunleavy told a reporter. “What it is, is we are tired of this whole thing, literally, figuratively, across the board, across this country in the state.”

But the hospital association disagrees. Jared Kosin said disaster declaration would help, as the prior one did. He said it would allow more aggressive use of telehealthcare. It would also allow for a quicker discharge of Medicaid patients to a nursing home or long-term acute care facility, he said, freeing up a hospital bed.

And, Kosin said, it could streamline state background checks and licensing for hospital staff. The state is already expediting the process for doctors and nurses. Kosin said hospitals want a waiver to speed up hiring of other staff, like lab techs and specialized cleaners. You can’t make beds available, he said, if you don’t have the staff to clean rooms between patients.

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A disaster declaration isn’t the only way to bypass regulations, but Kosin said it’s the quickest.

“If it’s going even to aid an ounce to making the efforts a little bit easier for hospitals, nursing homes and caregivers, then we think it’s a good idea,” he said.

The public can help ease the hospital crisis by getting vaccinated and wearing masks in public indoor locations, he said.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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