Alaska plans to help hospitals with COVID-19 crisis care

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska officials outlined plans Wednesday to help hospitals with crisis standards of care if needed amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and announced short-term contracts for more than 400 health care personnel to relieve medical facilities with overtaxed staffs.

State health commissioner Adam Crum signed an addendum to a public health emergency order that he said provides guidance to hospitals, care providers and local health authorities if the crisis standards of care are needed.

Crisis standards of care provide guidelines for administering care in extraordinary circumstances in which there are insufficient resources to provide levels of care that patients would normally get.

Crum said providers will have access to committees that can “help them provide strategies and alternate tools in order to provide care.”

Hospitals or health care facilities can contact the state health department if they think they need to implement crisis standards of care and a 15-member committee will meet and help provide guidance on options, according to a department statement.

The document signed by Crum calls for the department to facilitate daily statewide meetings “to identify and prioritize transfers to available beds, treatments, and identify and mitigate gaps in the health care system.”

Earlier this month, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage implemented crisis standards, with Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, the hospital’s chief of staff, writing the number of patients and level of care that they needed was exceeding the hospital’s resources.

Alaska has recently had the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 cases, according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins.

The number of COVID-19 cases among Alaskans since the pandemic began has now topped 100,000, the state health department reported Wednesday, putting the tally at 100,111. During that same period, the department reports there have been 466 COVID-19-related deaths.

The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, one of the public faces of Alaska’s COVID-19 response, said she fought back tears during a Wednesday news conference outlining the latest state actions.

“I was really trying not to lose it,” she said in an interview afterward. “I’d hoped we’d never be at this point in the pandemic.”

“I think this is what we’ve always been trying to avoid, was getting to the point where our hospital systems were being overwhelmed by the number of patients and starting to see that impact not only COVID patients but non-COVID patients as well,” she said.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state will build-up its health care capacity and will continue to ask Alaskans to “seriously consider” getting a “readily available” vaccine. He said he hoped the message coming out of the news conference is that the state is “on top of this.”

The state health department said it has contracted to bring on about 470 health care workers, including about 300 nurses, to help the strained workforce.

Heidi Hedberg, director of the state Division of Public Health, said there will be a “phased rollout” of the contracted workers, who will have to go through emergency credentialing, background checks and orientation. The state is working with a hospital association and health care facilities to prioritize where those workers go, Hedberg said.

The contract is for 90 days, with renewal options, she said.

The health department also announced it had ordered $2 million in at-home testing kits to help support student testing and that it is working with the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association in efforts to recruit and grow the number of certified nursing assistants.

The association, in a statement, thanked state officials for efforts to secure additional resources.

“Our caregivers have endured unspeakable stress as they work to keep us safe, and our health care system has been tested in ways we never imagined possible,” the statement said. “The prospect of relief staff coming to Alaska, a call to action for mobilizing and expanding our certified nurse aide workforce and the recognition that care standards are rapidly escalating to crisis are welcome developments that will help us get through” the current surge.

The association also called on Alaskans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to wear masks in indoor public settings.