At a crucial time in the pandemic, dozens of emergency workers arrive at Anchorage hospital

A person with a shirt that says DMAT PA-1 sits at a desk looking at a presenor at the front of the room
Members of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team listen at an orientation at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. The team of more than 30 doctors, nurses, pharmacists and logistics managers arrived the day before from the Lower 48. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Nearly 500 emergency health workers are arriving in hospitals across Alaska this week as the state struggles to get the COVID-19 crisis under control. 

Dozens of them were assigned to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, where COVID hospitalizations recently prompted the hospital to announce crisis standards of care. 

Administrator Bob Onders said that the influx of new workers will hopefully give exhausted employees a break, but many staff will also be required to expand the current ICU capacity to care for an expected increase of COVID hospitalizations. 

“We have, you know, 600 to 700 nurses here,” he said. “So 40 nurses is a help. But, as a proportional response, it still is challenging.”

In addition to about 50 workers contracted by the state, the Alaska Native Medical Center is also getting a federal emergency team of about 35 people. 

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On Friday, that group, the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, was sitting under the fluorescent lights of a conference room for orientation. 

The team includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists and logistics experts. Just two days earlier, they found out that they’d be deployed to Alaska.

“We landed last night, we started right away,” said Gina Smith, the team leader. 

As part of the group, Smith has been to disasters from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. Since COVID hit, the team has been on the front lines of the pandemic. 

“We were in California when the cruise ships came in,” she said. 

Now, Alaska is on the front lines of the COVID crisis with five times the national average case rate. 

Incoming staff nurses get trained on IV equipment at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The team is learning about Alaska’s medical system, the Alaska Native Medical Center’s daily operations and will get an orientation on Alaska Native culture. 

Sadie Anderson, the medical center’s nursing director, said staff has been working extra shifts to keep up with the patients and the added workers will be a big relief. 

“A lot of the nurses have been having to work five and six shifts a week,” she said. “We’re begging people to work extra. So this is going to help give those nurses a break.”

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Anderson said it will also help decrease the nurse-to-patient ratio. She said COVID patients require more nurses because of the complicated care they require. 

“This will really help us to be able to have a safer patient load for each nurse and to be able to provide better care for the patients,” she said. 

Most of the incoming staff are used to seeing disasters and trauma.

Tracy Williams, a nursing assistant who is here as part of the state contract, said she’s not burned out, even after a year and a half of traveling the country helping with COVID patients. 

“To me, it’s just like any other job: being a mom, you know, being a parent, period,” said the mother of four. “That’s not the only place I can say that I’ve cared for people.”

Tracy Williams, left, and two other colleagues prepare for an onboarding session at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Williams of Stone Mountain, Georgia, says she’s traveled around the country as a certified nursing assistant. “I have seen a moose in Maine. So that ain’t no big rah, rah rah, for me,” she said. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Williams, who is from Georgia, just got done with a stint in Michigan. She’s worked in Colorado, Maine, Montana and North Dakota. She also previously worked in Alaska while studying to become a physical therapist.  

“I was in Georgia for three days, well, four days, and I was here by Saturday, Sunday — that’s exhausting,” she said, “But it’s the motivation for what you love to do that gives you the push to say, ‘Come on, girl, you can sleep on the plane.'” 

Despite her exhaustion, Williams said, she’s excited to help her fellow health care workers in Alaska when they need it the most. 

RELATED: Alaska activates emergency crisis protocols in 20 health care facilities

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