Sitka COVID patients needing advanced care have been medevaced to Seattle, as both Providence Hospital and Alaska Native Medical Center approach maximum capacity. (APM/Joey Mendolia)

As of Friday (8-27-21), 15 percent of the available hospital beds in Alaska are occupied by COVID patients — putting a huge strain on a healthcare system that traditionally has a lot of other illnesses and injuries to attend to at this time of year.

The hospital crunch is especially frustrating for Alaska’s providers, who  — thanks to widely available vaccines — now consider COVID-19 a preventable disease.

You remember back in the spring of 2020 when everyone was talking about “bending the curve” or “flattening the curve”? They were referring to keeping the rate of hospitalization below capacity. This is John King on CNN in March of that year:

(CNN television audio)

This is the point about bending the curve: A surge of cases will overwhelm hospital capacity, both the beds, the supply lines, that’s a surge of cases. So you need to stretch it out with social distancing and other measures to bend the arc, stretch out the care.

In Alaska the curve touched that line in November of 2020, when over 300 patients were hospitalized for COVID. As of August 27, there are 127 hospitalizations in the state, 90 of them in intensive care unit beds, leaving just 29 ICU beds available for new patients. That sounds like an adequate supply, but it isn’t: In just the two previous days, the state reported over 1,300 new cases.

There are only 29 available Intensive Care beds in Alaska as of Friday, August 27, 2021. Just in the last two days, there have been over 1,300 new infections. (Alaska DHSS image capture)

 Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, says this doesn’t just mean tough luck for COVID patients — other patients die when the system is under strain.

“When you have a lot of cases at once, it can really overwhelm the healthcare system,” said Zink. “And then you start to get excess deaths, not only from COVID, but from other things as well. That means the same, we want to make systems in place, we continue to message out about COVID. Like we do all infectious diseases, we just takes a lot more people because there’s a lot more COVID spreading compared to other things in many ways. But we continue to try to flatten that curve to not have everything hit at once so we can maintain capacity. So we don’t see excess deaths.”

In Sitka, Dr. Elliot Bruhl told the Emergency Operations Center on August 25 that patients with serious COVID-19 disease were being medevaced to Seattle, because Alaska’s hospitals were at capacity. But by far the most frustrating element of the current situation is that — unlike in 2020, when lockdowns, social distancing, and masking were the only weapons against COVID — the disease is almost fully preventable. Vaccinated individuals may get a case of COVID, but they’re unlikely to become seriously ill or die from the disease.

Dr. Zink said clinicians across the state are “desperate” to help people get better, and hospitalization stays for covid patients have been reduced by a couple of days with new therapies like monoclonal antibodies.

But it would all be moot, game over, if everyone eligible would get vaccinated.

“But even better than treatment is having your own immune system take down this virus,” Zink said. “And basically all the vaccine does is it tells your own immune system, how to take down the virus doesn’t compete with your immune system, it doesn’t diminish your own immune system’s ability to take down the virus. It can respond in all sorts of different ways. It just gives it a head start and being able to take it up. So it is supporting our immune systems by getting vaccinated and helping to minimize that.”

On a positive note, Zink said that the current surge, combined with full approval by the Food & Drug Administration of the Pfizer vaccine on August 23 was pushing up Alaska’s vaccination rate. Over sixty percent of the state’s eligible residents now have received at least one dose.