ANCHORAGE – As Alaska’s daily case totals for COVID-19 continue to break records across the state, a broad cross-section of healthcare experts are voicing concern that the coming weeks and months could strain the state’s healthcare system and test the resolve of Alaskans unless mitigating steps are taken now. Already, so many cases are being reported to the Section of Epidemiology each day that there are lengthy delays processing and reporting them publicly.
These alarming trends were the backdrop of a hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee, which provided an update on the pandemic for Alaskans.
Commissioner Adam Crum and other officials from the Department of Health and Social Services declined to participate, but leaders from local hospitals, the Municipality of Anchorage, and the University of Alaska Anchorage told lawmakers what we can expect in the coming months.
“The recent increase in COVID-19 illnesses in Alaska is very concerning and could pose a threat to our healthcare system if rates increase further. The current rate of transmission could be reversed if Alaskans increased our use of facial masks, maintained physical distancing, avoided closed indoor spaces and increased handwashing. Public messages and/or public policies that promoted these basic steps could reverse the current upward trend and save lives,” said Dr. Tom Hennessy, a physician and infectious disease epidemiologist with the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“Our large hospitals are frequently over capacity, and there have been many accounts of overcrowding and ambulance diversion that have been reported in the news in recent years. In addition to this, there has been increased difficulty in finding adequate hospital staff, specifically nurses. Given this, a COVID surge could overwhelm the existing system relatively quickly and limit the ability to provide routine medical care, including emergency services.” added Dr. Tom Quimby, a practicing emergency physician at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.
“What I took away from the testimony of Alaska’s public health experts is that we are at a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic in the state,” Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee and led yesterday’s meeting from Bethel, said. “Sustained and record-breaking case counts are likely to continue, as well as to overwhelm statewide medical capacity, if immediate and comprehensive statewide protective measures and mitigation strategies are not enacted.”
Important strategies include statewide requirements for the use of face masks in places where social distancing is not possible, setting statewide capacity and occupancy levels for indoor businesses, and limiting the number of people allowed at public gatherings and in public spaces.