Hundreds of health care workers will arrive in Alaska starting next week to help hospitals strained by Covid cases, the Dunleavy administration announced Wednesday.
“We are at the worst place in the pandemic. We have more cases. We have our hospitals being overrun with the number of patients,” Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said.
Zink and other state health officials spoke Wednesday at a press conference held by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. They discussed Alaska’s high Covid case rate and measures being taken to relieve hospitals experiencing staffing shortages.
Under an $87 million agreement with the federal General Services Administration, the state will hire on a short-term basis nearly 300 registered nurses, more than 100 certified nursing assistants and other medical personnel. The entire cost will be reimbursed to Alaska through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Up to 470 contractors will work in Alaska through DLH Solutions. The phased-in rollout will include expedited training, certification and orientation.
Temporary staff will include the following:
• 297 registered nurses
• 114 certified nursing assistants
• 12 surgical technicians
• 15 respiratory therapists
• 14 medical lab personnel
• 11 social workers (case managers)
• Two licensed practical nurses
• Two radiology technicians
• One physician
“We signed a contract yesterday with DLH Solutions, a Joint Commission-accredited organization, and they have a history of serving the VA with contracted health care workers,” said Heidi Hedburg, public health director at the Department of Health and Social Services.
Hedburg said the short-term contracts, which are for 90 days and renewable, are attractive to the health care workers from out of state. Many nurses are leaving retirement to work short term.
As other regions in the U.S. are on a downward trend with new Covid cases, contracted health care workers are able to mobilize and come to Alaska, Hedburg said.
Dunleavy described the anticipated influx of health care workers as part of a comprehensive support plan finalized this week by his administration to support medical facilities.
The plan also includes:
• Contracting with the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association to recruit and expand the certified nursing assistant workforce.
• Training and certifying nursing assistants more quickly through emergency rules passed by the state nursing board. The regulation change aligns Alaska CNA training requirements with federal requirements.
• Working with local EMS agencies including in Fairbanks to provide services that enable early discharge of hospital patients to open beds. Other strategies include transporting patients to alternative destinations, such as an urgent care clinic, or treating patients through telemedicine. EMS agencies also may be able to check on patients at home.
• Providing Covid-19 at-home test kits to families with children to test before going to school in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. “Testing early is critically important,” Hedburg said. The state has purchased $2 million in testing supplies for families to test students at home.
Crisis standards of care
On Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) included “Crisis Standards of Care” through an addendum to the existing public health emergency order.
The addendum offers participating health care facilities coverage under the civil liability clause passed by the Legislature.
Commissioner of Health and Social Services Adam Crum said that the addendum “provides guidance to Alaska’s hospitals, health care providers and local health authorities in support of crisis standards of care should they be needed for a facility or community.”
“We appreciate the addendum to ... the public health order that clarifies liability protection under these unusual conditions,” Foundation Health Partners said in a prepared statement.
Foundation Health Partners is the umbrella organization for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Tanana Valley Clinic and Denali Center. Foundation Health Partners noted that both Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and Denali Center “have had to transition from conventional standards of care to alternate care strategies in some areas.”
Call to get vaccinated
Dunleavy said Wednesday that the number of Covid cases is making it harder for hospitals to have the capacity to deliver the level of care that all patients need, such as those injured in car accidents or needing treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses.
“Our hospitals need help with staffing, supplies and (for) Alaskans to do their part,” Dunleavy said, as he called for every eligible Alaskan to be vaccinated.
“We still have the third-lowest death rates per capita in the nation,” Dunleavy said. “We are not leading the nation right now in the number of folks vaccinated in this country. Vaccinations remain the most important tools that we have.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to Covid-19 are among the unvaccinated population. In 2021, 80% of all cases, 88% of all hospitalizations, and 87% of deaths among Alaska residents, 12 and older, are people not fully vaccinated, DHSS reported.
Zink said that Alaska experienced its highest new case numbers Wednesday, with 1,224 residents and 27 out-of-state residents diagnosed with the virus.
On Tuesday, Alaska reached the most cases per 100,000 residents of any state in the country, Zink said.
“We see more people in Alaska being hospitalized right now than we have ever seen before in the pandemic,” she said. “The strain on our hospital systems is impacting not only people with Covid-19 but people who are there because of a stroke, or a heart attack, or a kid who falls off of a bike.”
She re-emphasized the importance of the vaccine.
“Ninety percent of (Covid-related) hospitalizations in the ICU are because of unvaccinated individuals,” Zink said, adding that vaccines not only protect individuals but those around them, including children.
The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association issued a statement after the governor’s press conference.
“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 association 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 Delta surge,” the association said.