Anchorage mayor blames vaccine mandates for hospital staff shortage. Hospitals say he’s wrong.

a person behind a podium at a press conference
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on July 1, his first day in office. Anchorage was reporting 20-30 new COVID-19 cases per day then. Now the city registers several hundred a day. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

While Alaska hospitals say they’re overwhelmed with an unrelenting surge of coronavirus patients, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson is pointing to vaccine mandates as one reason hospitals can’t keep up.

“The lingering pandemic, coupled with historically busy hospitals this time of year, as well as some employers forcing employees who chose not to be vaccinated to lose their jobs, have contributed to a staffing shortage,” Bronson said in a Facebook post Sunday.

Hospital representatives say there’s no evidence to support the mayor’s contention. The largest two hospitals in Anchorage have announced vaccine mandates, but they haven’t gone into effect yet.

RELATED: Masking and capacity restrictions slowed the Delta variant in Juneau, expert says

Alaska’s COVID rate remains the highest in the country – quadruple the national average. Physicians from Alaska’s largest hospital went to an Assembly meeting Sept. 14 to plead for the community to get vaccinated and wear masks. Some Anchorage Assembly members are pressing for a new mask mandate, which they’re slated to consider Tuesday.

Bronson, though, calls masking and vaccination a matter of personal choice. The mayor and Eagle River Assembly Member Jamie Allard held their own unofficial public hearing in the Assembly chambers Sept. 18 to shine a spotlight on the complaints of a different group of health care workers: those who say they’d rather lose their jobs than get vaccinated.

A woman named Sara, who identified herself as a pediatric nurse at Providence, said she’s waiting to hear if the hospital will accept her religious objection to the vaccine.

“All the providers I’ve met through my journey so far have, you know, counseled me on getting the vaccine,” she said at the invitation-only event. “And it’s very stressful, a lot of pressure and coercion, from my personal providers and of course everyone I work with, too.”

RELATED: Anchorage’s public health director resigns

The state projects COVID cases will double within a month. The state last week adopted crisis standards of care, freeing hospitals to ration scarce resources.

Jared Kosin, head of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said the high volume of complex COVID patients is the reason hospitals are overwhelmed. Blaming the staffing shortage on hospital-imposed vaccine mandates is reckless, he said. 

“From all hospitals and nursing homes that are dealing with this, I have not heard a single concern that there’s going to be a mass exodus of staff over these requirements,” he said.

Kosin points out that hospital staffing shortages predate the announced vaccine mandates in Anchorage. And hospitals across that state are shorthanded, even though vaccine policies vary and no one has been fired for noncompliance yet.

Representatives of Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Native Medical Center say they don’t expect an exodus of employees when their vaccine mandates go into effect next month. Dr. Holly Alfrey, chief medical officer at ANMC, said there was very little staff “pushback.”

“I would think that the burnout thing is a greater problem than the vaccine mandate,” she said, “by far.”

Providence has alternate protocols for employees who refuse the vaccine, and it has allowed some exemptions, though hospital spokesman Mike Canfield didn’t know how many. He said the hospital is focused on retention by providing care-givers access to the vaccine and information about the safety and efficacy. At last check, he says, no experienced staff had left due to the requirement.

New York’s governor was contemplating calling in the National Guard to fill in for health care workers who refused to be vaccinated by that state’s Sept 27 deadline. Vaccination rates there were reported to vary by hospital, from 80 to 100%.

Employer mandates aren’t the only pressure on vaccine holdouts. President Biden is imposing a vaccine requirement at health care institutions that accept Medicare or Medicaid, which is basically all of Alaska’s hospitals.

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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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