Dr. Owen Hanley

Alena Naiden/News-Miner

Dr. Owen Hanley talks about taking care of Covid patients at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital during a teleconference held by Foundational Health Partners on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Alaska reported seven more deaths from Covid-19, five of them in the Fairbanks area, in addition to a soaring number of Covid-19 hospitalizations. Local and state health workers are providing medical care to patients despite limited space and resources — and aggressive responses from the public that include yelling and spitting.

The recent deaths included a Fairbanks woman in her 30s; two Fairbanks men, one in his 70s and the other his 80s; two North Pole residents in their 50s and 60s; as well as a Palmer man in his 70s and an Anchorage man in his 60s.

Violence toward health care workers

State health officials are “seeing and hearing more and more stories of violence toward health care workers,” putting the public health team “under attack,” state Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said.

“We have had reports from health care providers who have spoken out at local meetings either being spit at or receiving threatening letters in the mail regarding their work or them sharing their medical input,” Zink said. “We’re seeing more aggression against pharmacies, and then when I think of a public health team, I think about not only our public health nurses, but I think about the calls and the emails and things that we get.”

Zink said that some pharmacists have stopped asking customers if they want a Covid-19 vaccine or not because people get angry hearing that question. Triage nurses in the emergency department are also afraid to ask if patients are vaccinated or have Covid because patients become violent toward them.

Regional nurse Sarah Hargrave said, “We’ve had public health nurses followed out of community meetings, being yelled at. We’ve had one of our public health centers vandalized this week. There are a number of things going on that just aren’t true to the spirit of Alaskans, and we know Alaskans can do better than that.”

At the same time, director of Public Health Heidi Hedberg said some Alaskans are helping health care workers feel appreciated.

Sarah Martin, chief nursing officer, said that FMH workers are grateful “for every single visitor that comes in the building, everyone that’s here to support us and has sent chocolates and food.”

More patients at FMH

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital continues seeing an increased number of patients, mostly the unvaccianted, who tend to be sicker and younger, said Dr. Angelica Ramirez, chief medical officer of Foundation Health Partners.

Patients experience long wait times in the first care and emergency departments — four or five hours of wait time is not uncommon, said Dr. Peter Dillon, the medical director with Tanana Valley Clinic.

Hospitalist Dr. Owen Hanley said that from a personal standpoint, Covid is a really hard disease “to watch people go through.” At some point, he and a nurse had to hold the hand of a patient that they took off a breathing machine while his family was on FaceTime.

“He had a bunch of kids that are the same ages as my kids, saying ‘I love you daddy,’” he said. “This is a guy that’s the same age as me.”

Tired employees

Martin added that employees work difficult hours to respond to the growing need for care.

“We really really really want to tell you that we’re tired, and that in all honesty, we’re sad, the things that are happening in our hospital and in our community are really difficult,” Martin said. “Our staff are working day and night round the clock, they’re changing their hours, they’re flexing their child care needs. They’re working nights, weekends, holidays, really to try and keep each and every one of you safe.”

The medical facilities have recently have hired paramedics, Covid relief physicians and non-clinicians. They also put in a request for multiple nurses to the state in light of more nurses arriving in Alaska.

Scrambling for space in the hospital

The medical centers have also made changes to be able to respond to the surge and prepare for a worsening situation.

First, they are recovering patients in the preoperative care area rather than admitting them to an inpatient bed. That area also now serves as the surge ICU space. Most Covid cases are treated in the Medical Unit 2 south, which has become the Covid unit and has been full several times.

“So this is pretty unusual that one disease process would take up an entire wing of the hospital,” Hanley said. “This isn’t even to mention all the other patients that need care.”

At Tanana Valley Clinic, the hospital has “multiple folks stacked in on top of each other in offices,” Dillon said. “We’ve crammed extra computers and desks into places, made exam rooms out of what was an ultrasound room or closet.”

Ramirez said the hospital hasn’t been able to keep up with the monoclonal antibody infusions in terms of space. Now, the lobby space of the surgery tower is functioning as an infusion room, and the hospital is offering the procedure seven days a week.

In addition, the hospital prepared a large meeting room on the first floor of our facility, to be able to serve as a board, if needed.

“But at the end of the day, even though we’re giving infusions in a lobby, even though we may have beds in a meeting room on 2 South, we’re still meeting standard of care,” Ramirez said.

“We are doing our best,” Ramirez added. “But there is a limit to how much we can do and how many people we can care for. And so, it is vaccination, it is masking. I know nobody wants to hear it. We’re all tired of it too, but we really need everybody’s help.”

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at (907) 459-7587 or at anaiden@newsminer.com. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.

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