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Alaska breaks records, leads country in Covid case counts

Once the most vaccinated state in the nation, Alaska now leads the country in Covid-19 case counts and hospitals are rationing care as vaccinations have stalled and the Delta variant spreads.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — Once the most vaccinated state in the nation, Alaska now leads the country in Covid-19 case counts and hospitals are rationing care as vaccinations have stalled and the Delta variant spreads.

For the third time in two weeks the 49th state broke its daily record of cases. Seven new deaths, a record 1,330 new cases and a near-record 209 hospitalizations were reported Thursday, according to a state dashboard. The previous recorded highs were Wednesday, with 1,251 cases, and Sept. 15, with 1,095 cases.

Hospital officials say those numbers do not completely represent the actual impact of Covid-19, since some long-term patients who no longer test positive but still need hospital care are not included in the tally.

On Wednesday Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, announced implementation of crisis standards of care statewide. The declaration allows hospitals to ration care due to resource and staffing limitations.

On the same day, Dunleavy also announced the state had signed a contract to bring nearly 500 health care workers from the Lower 48 to Alaska to help with staffing shortages and existing burned-out caregivers. For months hospitals have tried to provide financial incentives for existing workers to take on extra shifts, but burn-out is evident in how few have been enticed by extra pay.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services enabled crisis standards of care using a new addendum to the state’s existing Covid-19 public health order. The state health department also ordered $2 million in rapid at-home testing kits for schools, officials say.

“We want health care providers to know that the state of Alaska is incredibly proud of and grateful for the care they are continuing to provide to Alaskans,” said Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink.

“Our health care professionals are accustomed to providing the best care they possibly can for their patients, but resources are now stretched to a point that most of us never expected to see in our careers. Difficult decisions will need to be made over whose care should be prioritized, and we’re here to support our providers to provide the best care for as many patients as possible during these challenging times.”

A combination of short staffing and high numbers of Covid-19 patients is overwhelming medical facilities in the state’s largest hospital hubs of Anchorage, Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks. This makes emergencies at rural hospitals even more dire as they struggle to find an open bed in urban centers that can provide a higher level of care. At least one cardiac patient died recently when a bed in Anchorage wasn’t readily available, according to officials.

Nearly 300 registered nurses and more than 100 certified nursing assistants or patient care technicians, funded through an $87 million contract signed on Tuesday between the state and the federal General Services Administration, will begin arriving next week. A company called DLH Solutions will bring 470 contracted health care workers to facilities around the state, Heidi Hedberg, public health director with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said during a community briefing.

The rollout will begin Monday and will happen in phases to allow the workers to travel to Alaska, receive emergency credentials, undergo a background check and train in fields including cultural competence before being deployed to hospitals in the state, according to Hedberg.

“We are working very closely with the hospital association and their members to prioritize where they go, and where the greatest need is,” Hedberg said.

Alaska’s hospital administrators warned of a pending crisis in late July. Despite the warnings, Dunleavy ruled out a statewide Covid-19 disaster declaration. Also, recently narrowly elected mayor of Alaska’s most populous city of Anchorage, Republican Dave Bronson, refused to enact any mask or other Covid-19 mandates within the municipality. Bronson was elected with just shy of 1,200 votes in a May run-off election with Democratic candidate Forrest Dunbar.

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Bronson, who remains unvaccinated, has repeatedly stated in assembly meetings and press briefings, “I will not mandate that business require their employees to vaccinate.”

He has stated the municipality will not comply with President Joe Biden’s vaccination directive or reinstitute mask mandates despite repeated calls from the Anchorage Assembly to do so.

At a special meeting on Monday, two Assembly members introduced a mask ordinance that will, if approved, likely be vetoed by Bronson. The 11-member Assembly would then need a majority of eight votes to override his veto.

In another example of contentiousness, members of the audience at a Sept. 14 Anchorage Assembly meeting openly booed and jeered as a group of doctors and nurses testified about the current Covid-19 crisis in their hospitals and pleaded for the help of local government to take action.

In addition to a hostile crowd, Assembly member Jamie Allard repeatedly asked the doctors and nurses whether they were withholding “alternative” treatments from their Covid-19 patients, thereby allowing patients to needlessly suffer or die in order to “promote the vaccine.”

This prompted an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News from Paxson Woelber, an Anchorage multimedia expert who has worked more than two dozen Republican political campaigns, and Dr. Daniel Volland, a licensed Optometric Physician and small business owner in Anchorage.

“We believe Tuesday’s events represent a new and deeply disturbing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in Anchorage. Our local medical providers have worked tirelessly and put their lives on the line to care for those affected by COVID-19. They showed up to work during the early stages of the pandemic, despite a lack of personal protective equipment and grave unknowns, and they were among the first to volunteer for vaccination,” they wrote.

“They are now working overtime to contain an immense surge of largely-preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths while struggling with severe stress and burnout. The movement to demonize medical workers at this critical time is appalling and wrong, and the insinuation that medical providers are deliberately killing their patients or withholding any proven treatments — from a sitting member of the Assembly, no less — is abhorrent.”

Alaska was once the most vaccinated state in the nation. It has now dropped into the bottom third. The state ranked 18th for seven-day death rate per capita.

Vaccines are widely available statewide. At one time, Alaska was promoting vaccinations to boost tourism by encouraging visitors from other states with shortages to come to visit, stay long enough to receive both doses for free.

Now state health officials report that from Jan. 16 to Sept. 11, 2021, 80% of all cases, 88% of all hospitalizations, and 87% of deaths among Alaska residents, aged 12 years or older, were in people who were not fully vaccinated.

“Vaccination remains the single best way to prevent severe illness and hospitalization from the virus,” Zink said.

As of Thursday, 62.7% had at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 58.3% were considered fully vaccinated, among eligible Alaskans 12 and older.

Zink also urged Alaskans to not be distracted by other treatment options such as invermectin and instead get proven treatment like monoclonal antibodies.

“Kindness and compassion are important to all, especially to our health care workers who are committed to providing care to all Alaskans,” Zink added.

Despite repeated refusals to issue mandates, Governor Dunleavy continues to promote personal responsibility to stay safe and help others.

“The case numbers are much higher than any of us want,” Dunleavy, who is vaccinated, stated. “The pressure on our hospitals grow greater every day. We’re going to get assistance. But that doesn’t mean that individual Alaskans should not or cannot help themselves.”

“I’m asking all Alaskans to do your part by minimizing your health risks, not just for the virus, but for your personal safety,” Governor Dunleavy said. “Think before taking risks. Let’s help the hospitals by reducing the strain on them for accidents. Every little bit counts.”

Lending their support, The Iditarod Trail Race, the sporting event the state is most known for, announced Thursday that it will require vaccination for all participants in the 2022 race. 

“This applies to the entire Iditarod community, mushers, staff, contractors, volunteers, pilots, veterinarians, etc. This decision was made in concert with feedback from rural Alaska and is reflective of the Iditarod’s broad community health consciousness,” race organizers announced. 

“Now, more than ever, we are hyper focused to ensure zero community transmission as we prepare to return to the traditional Northern Route and a Nome finish.” 

The race is held annually at the beginning of March. For the first time in its history race officials rerouted the 2021 event to avoid entering traditional Alaskan Native villages and circled back to finish at the starting point in Willow. This year will mark the 50th running of what is dubbed “the last great race on earth.”

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