‘We need to wake up.’ Alaska health officials plead for action amid COVID-19 surge

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

The Alaska House Health and Social Services held one of the Legislature’s important hearings on COVID-19 so far, hearing from several health officials who warned that Alaska is nearing disaster as cases continue to surge and threaten to overwhelm Alaska’s already limited health care capacity.

Health care officials said the state must quickly act to mandate masks, limit large gatherings and take other actions to limit the spread of COVID-19. After seeing cases dwindle into the single-digits, the state’s cases have boomed beyond 100 per day since lifting mandates that closed bars, dine-in restaurants and large gatherings.

“Alaska’s COVID-19 epidemic is rapidly worsening,” said Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, later adding, “What we are doing now to control the outbreak is not working. We have watched disasters of preventable illness and death explode in places like Italy and New York City where they have extensive health care capacity but were surprised by the speed of the pandemic. … This could soon be repeated here in Alaska. The time for effective action to control the epidemic in Alaska is running out, but it is not too late to prevent a health care crisis.”

Alaska has one of the fastest growths in cases of any state in recent weeks and the state has reported that more and more hospital beds and ventilators are being put to use. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink told legislators that the state had momentarily ran out of reagents for testing last week.

Alaska also has the second highest Rt value, a measure of the average number of people infected by an infectious person, in the nation at 1.21.

Hennessy said early models for the pandemic showed it would take many months for the health care capacity in the Anchorage area, which serves as the backbone for much of the state, to become overwhelmed. Now, he told legislators, that point could be coming far, far sooner with disastrous consequences.

“These are conservative estimates because they do not include patients transferred to Anchorage from other parts of the state,” he told the committee. “So, our safety cushion has shrunk from 20 weeks to 8 weeks for intensive care unit capacity. We have never been closer to exceeding our health care capacity at any point in this epidemic.”

The state of Alaska has refused to implement any public health mandates after pushing to reopen businesses and has at times even sparred with local communities’ efforts, arguing that state-run buildings were exempt from Anchorage’s mask mandate.

Health officials said that head-in-the-sand approach is dangerous.

“We need to wake up. We need to wear masks. We need to wash our hands. We need to practice social distancing. It has to happen,” said Jared Kosin, the president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

House Health and Social Services Committee chair Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, released a statement after the hearing that consistent statewide mandates are critically needed. Zulkosky has been particularly concerned about the pandemic’s impact on rural Alaska, which was decimated by the 1918 flu pandemic.

“Alaska is quickly approaching a point of no return in the spread and harmful impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of Alaskans,” she said. “Evidence shows us, as experts stated today, that patchwork regulations do not work well to help turn the tide. The clear solution is for the State of Alaska to promptly enact statewide protective measures that will ultimately save lives, protect our economy, and uphold the well-being of our frontline medical professionals. With COVID-19, time is not on our side.”

Hours after the hearing, Gov. Mike Dunleavy held a news conference where he announced that the state would tighten requirements for people visiting Alaska. The new rules require visitors to provide a negative test result from within 72 hours of travelling to Alaska. The old rules allowed visitors to take a test once visiting or quarantine for 14 days, a measure that several people ignored.

At the meeting, Dunleavy once again avoided calls for statewide public health measures, saying that his administration would be working with communities to implement tailored measures (though, remember, the administration has frequently sparred with Anchorage over its attempts to implement health measures).

Dunleavy, who suggested the pandemic would be a “momentary glitch,” continued to put the onus on local communities and individuals in responding to the virus. It was a stark contrast to the dire warnings from the public health officials, as highlighted by columnist Dermot Cole in his post “Alaska’s COVID-19 outbreak takes rapid turn for the worse.”

“The tone of their remarks is nothing at all like that at the state-managed publicity shows in which Gov. Mike Dunleavy resembles a middle school principal cautioning his audience to practice good citizenship and keep calm. The situation is far more urgent than he lets on and it requires actions that he doesn’t want to take. But there is no time to lose. The state is steering by looking in the rear-view mirror—the weeks of delay between infection and serious illness is a hard concept to manage,” he wrote. “The pandemic is not under control in Alaska, a state with limited health care capacity, and we are not immune to the tragedies that have taken place in states with far more extensive health care institutions and personnel. We need to wake up.”

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