With local virus transmissions rising exponentially, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital is reporting record-high admissions of Covid patients who tend to be younger and sometimes angrier than at the beginning of the pandemic, health officials said Friday.
Foundation Health Partners leaders provided a Covid-19 update, pointing out the record-high admission rate at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and describing changes in patient demographics.
Averaging at 10 and 11 new Covid patients per day this past week, the hospital had 12 Covid-19 patients on Friday and two more who were suspected to have the virus, said FHP Chief Medical Officer Dr. Angelique Ramirez.
“We are really struggling right now; we have a record-high number of patients in the hospital,” Shelley Ebenal, FHP CEO and quality medical director, said.
Overall, 18% of all Interior hospital patients are Covid patients, compared to 5% statewide, according to the state Covid-19 Hospital Data Dashboard. Out of 56 beds available in the Interior, 51 are occupied. Out of 13 ICU beds available, eight are filled.
Covid patients tend to be younger
Besides admitting more patients, the hospital is also seeing that the patients are younger than in the beginning of the pandemic, Ramirez said.
For example, on one day this past week, from 12 Covid patients, eight were below age 65, including one 25-year-old occupying an ICU bed. The rest were on the general floor, with one person in their 40s, three in their 50s and three in their early 60s, according to Ramirez.
The younger hospitalization age range also leads to a virus transmission uptick among younger kids, including infants under the age of one and infants who are in the first month of life, pediatrician Laura Brunner said.
“This is no longer grandparents getting hospitalized; this is parents,” she said, explaining that since kids live with parents, they get exposed to the virus too.
Covid patients stay in the hospital longer
Because the patients are younger, they tend to recover from the virus — after staying in the hospital for two-three weeks, said Dr. Barb Creighton.
“We’re seeing them staying longer because they are not dying,” Creighton said. She said she is happy to see patients turning around, but is “concerned about the hospital building up more and more patients.”
Covid patients are not fully vaccinated
When the in-patient census was taken last week, none of the Covid patients were fully vaccinated, Ramirez said. Additionally, the hospital has not seen any fully vaccinated people getting hospitalized with the virus.
Creighton said after the vaccine rollout, the demographic of the patients changed. Before, people who were older or Native would come to the hospital with Covid. With seniors being the most immunized age group in Alaska and the Native population leading state vaccination efforts, current Covid patients generally belong to a different group.
“These are young people,” Creighton said. “These are middle aged white guys — sorry to say that — but it really is the demographics of people who haven't gotten around to get vaccinated or don't really feel that they need vaccination because they are younger, in their 40s, and they want to see what the vaccine is going to do before they take it.”
Covid patients are getting angrier
When the hospital received older patients, they were showing appreciation to hospital staff, which changed with the shift in demographics, Ebenal said.
“These are generalizations,” she noted, “but some of these folks are anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and they don’t believe that they have Covid or that they are sick because of it, and our staff is getting some very angry folks.”
Ebenal said that hospital workers don't feel that the community values their work.
“Our morale is really low,” she said. “We need to make sure they know that the community is appreciating what they are doing, because they are in the thick of it right now, in a whole different way than they were in this before.”
Cases rising in Fairbanks
Creighton said the rising Covid cases and hospitalization, in combination with high social activity in the region, worries hospital workers.
“There is a disconnect that we have business opening, school buses filling, restaurants are going, and we have visitors happening, and yet we have our highest case rate,” she said. “So we are like, does anybody see this? This place is on fire with Covid.”
Fairbanks North Star Borough more than tripled its weekly Covid-19 case average this month, according to the borough data. The region has the highest virus transmission in Alaska, according to the Department of Health Social Services.
Vaccinations are low
One of the main factors driving up the cases in the Fairbanks region is the low vaccination rate, Ramirez said. At 36.5% of people fully vaccinated, the borough stays second to the last in vaccination rates across the state.
“What we have known all along from the science is that if we have a significant amount of the virus in the community and it’s not vaccinated and people are not universally masked, it will spread,” she said. “And we are seeing that.”
Officials are recommending unvaccinated people to mask up and do as many activities as possible outdoors. They are also working to make it easier for people to get vaccinated.
Half of adults in Alaska received at least their first vaccine dose as of Friday. Another 30% consider vaccinations and another 20% don’t want to receive the vaccine, said Director of Public Health Heidi Hedberg. To reach her immunity, around 70% to 80% of the community should have the immunity to the virus, said state epidemiologist Joe McLaighin.
“Not everyone will get vaccinated,” Ramirez said. “But we just need a large number to get vaccinated to protect themselves and protect everybody.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.