Sharing harrowing details, hospital officials implore Alaska lawmakers to help quickly

a sign in front of a parking lot and buildings that reads "Alaska Native Health Campus" and "Emergency"
An entrance sign outside of the Alaska Native Medical Campus on Aug. 24, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The state’s hospitals asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy for a new disaster declaration on Wednesday.

And on Thursday, hospital leaders told lawmakers at a House Health and Social Services Committee meeting that it’s most important that the state act now to help overburdened hospitals — no matter the method. 

“We are in crisis,” said Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “Our sole focus and interest is getting resources and support to our facilities and caregivers as fast as possible. …All we want is support. And we want it now.”

Kosin called on Dunleavy’s administration and the Legislature to work together. 

Hospitals leaders have said a disaster declaration would allow more aggressive use of telehealth. They’ve also called for the state to streamline state background checks and licensing for hospital staff. Responding to those concerns, Dunleavy on Thursday added bills in to the agenda for the legislative special session.

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

One would expand the use of telehealth and allow hospitals and nursing homes to do background checks on their own, rather than going through the state system during a state or federal public health emergency or disaster. It would also empower the state’s health commissioner to temporarily order insurers to not require hospitals to follow rules they usually require.

Another bill would allow Alaska to join a compact with other states that could make it easier for nurses in one state to be licensed in the others. A Senate committee considered a version of this bill during the regular session. 

Hospital leaders say state action can’t come soon enough. Staff and hospital capacity are seriously strained. Rural health care organizations are having trouble sending their sickest patients to Anchorage.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ellen Hodges described a patient from a village who was critically ill with a condition other than COVID. 

The hospital in Bethel doesn’t have an intensive care unit. It usually sends its critically-ill patients to the Alaska Native Medical Center. But the ICU there was full. So the patient’s doctor started to call hospitals around the state as the patient’s health got worse, she said. The doctor was eventually able to find a bed. 

“The choice of an unvaccinated person to go maskless in a crowded venue causes a person in a village hundreds of miles away to go without the resources needed to simply survive, regardless of whether that person made the choice to get vaccinated and wear a mask,” Hodges said.

RELATED: COVID-19 hospitalizations rise to new high in Alaska

Matanuska-Susitna Regional Medical Center CEO David Wallace said the long surge of COVID-19 has worn down hospital staff. An experienced nurse said that last week was the worst she had ever seen. 

“She is watching the desperation on the faces of patients that are far too young to be dying from a disease that has a preventable application called immunization,” Wallace said.

He said the hospital has begged nurses who are prepared to walk away from their jobs to come back for their next shift.

Alaska Native Medical Center Administrator Dr. Bob Onders said his hospital is “not doing well at all.” He said the staff feels that the public and government are not recognizing the strain on hospitals. 

“The general perception is no action is being taken” to help hospitals, he said. 

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Providence Alaska Chief Executive Preston Simmons said hospitals have fewer nurses per patient because they’re at capacity. He said the surge here could continue to grow until late September if it follows the pattern of other countries. 

He emphasized the importance of wearing face masks. He said while children generally have mild symptoms from the virus, they often spread the disease. He noted that COVID-19’s growth was less in the spring, when schools required masks. And the surge in Alaska grew after some districts re-opened without requiring masks.  

“We need to be smart and take care of each other by masking up,” he said. 

State health commissioner Adam Crum said the governor’s proposed bills address the concerns raised by the hospitals. He also noted that state law requires the Legislature to vote on extending disasters longer than 30 days. The state extended the disaster using new orders last winter when the Legislature was in session.

House Health and Social Services Committee Co-chairs Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, and Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, released a statement calling on Dunleavy to issue a disaster declaration. 

At least one lawmaker had a different concern about the testimony. 

Rep. Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla, said: “This whole hearing has felt politically manipulative.”

He pointed to data that Israel is experiencing COVID-19 increases despite having a high vaccine rate, and that a rising share of those hospitalized are vaccinated. 

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the vaccines remain effective, but aren’t as effective against the delta variant as earlier strains. And he said that as the share of the public that’s vaccinated grows, the share of hospitalized patients who are vaccinated will also grow, even as the vaccines remain effective at reducing the disease’s spread. 

The other items on the special session agenda include the governor’s proposals to enshrine the permanent fund dividend in the state constitution and lower the constitutional limit on state spending. A bill to fund PFDs and other items is also on the agenda.

The special session must end by Sept. 14. 

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