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New COVID-19 cases continue to fall around the United States — down nearly 25% over the past two weeks, with deaths dropping by more than 10%. But there are still far too many losing their lives, especially in Alaska where just 58% of the population is fully vaccinated and hospitals are implementing “crisis standards of care" because of a shortage of beds and staff. William Brangham reports.
The United States' overall battle against COVID is improving. New cases continue to fall around the country, nearly 25 percent over the past two weeks. The number of deaths have dropped as well by more than 10 percent.
But many Americans are still dying from COVID, more than 1, 800 in just the past 24 hours. And many states are still struggling with overcrowded hospitals.
As William Brangham reports, Alaska is among the most impacted right now.
Alaska is experiencing the nation's worst outbreak right now. The surge there is made worse because of the state's huge size, and that its limited health care system largely relies on major hospitals in Anchorage, which is the state's largest city.
So far, 20 hospitals and health facilities in the state have triggered so-called crisis standards of care, because they're so short on beds and staff. Alaska has flown in nearly 500 medical workers to assist over the next few months. Just 58 percent of the population there is fully vaccinated.
Jeannie Monk is the senior vice president of Alaska's State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. And she joins me from Juneau.
Jeannie Monk, thank you so much for being here.
I wonder if you could give just us a quick snapshot of how things are going there right now.
Jeannie Monk, Senior Vice President, Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association: Right. Thanks. Glad to have a chance to chat today.
Well, while things seem to be improving in the rest of the country, Alaska is facing our worst surge of the pandemic. And we're really struggling as a health system.
Starting in August, we saw case counts and hospitalizations really increasing. And clinical care is extremely limited. And we're really having to make difficult decisions on how to allocate scarce resources and provide care to a very large state.
And is it your sense that the bulk of the COVID patients in medical facilities around the state are primarily unvaccinated?
They are primarily — the sickest patients are generally unvaccinated. However, this surge, because of Alaska's health care system, is impacting everybody who needs to receive medical care in the state.
Right, because it's not just COVID patients filling them up.
I imagine there's people with medical needs all over.
Are you guys having to delay procedures and surgeries and things like that?
We really rely on the three largest hospitals in Anchorage to take care of the sickest people. So, in Anchorage, hospitals are really evaluating on a day-to-day, even hour-by-hour basis what procedures they can do, and are having to stop doing anything that isn't very urgent.
In rural areas, they have less capacity, but may not be quite as full. So, it really is a hospital-by-hospital, day-by-day decision as to what they can do. And some things that people might call elective really are not elective and are urgent. Some of those things may be treatment surgery, diagnostic care for cancer, cardiac care, things that maybe you could put them off for a few days, but are very urgent needs.
And that puts hospitals in a really difficult decision — place.
One of the things that we have been hearing a lot down here is that medical staff, doctors and nurses, are having — they're just — they're burned out, they're stressed out, they're overworked.
And they're also having very difficult interactions with patients who are also similarly stressed out. Are you guys seeing the same kind of thing there too?
One of the worst thing that's happening right now is the hostility towards health care workers. And this is by a very vocal minority. But hospitals and medical providers have been receiving harassing phone calls, threats. They are getting demands for treatments that have been proven ineffective or are not approved.
Sometimes, even patients that are being treated for COVID in the hospital are being very hostile and denying they even have COVID. So, it can be a really difficult place to be providing care right now.
I mean, I can't imagine having to deal with that, on top of having been fighting this fight for a year-and-a-half-plus.
Yes, the caregivers are really exhausted. They're exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally.
But we — yesterday, for the first time, I heard hope in the voices of our hospital leaders. We have new relief workers that are arriving in Alaska. They have been arriving over the past week-and-a-half. So far, we have about 300 new contract health care workers that are completing orientation and are beginning to bring relief to our tired work force.
So that is really a welcome addition to help the care system.
And, lastly, as we reported earlier, we are starting to see signs of cases and deaths and hospitalizations down in the Lower 48 declining, which we all hope continues. Does that give you any hope that that might make it up to you as well, that you might be near the end of this?
We really hope so.
We have seen in the past few days a slight decline in the number of hospitalizations. It's too soon yet to know if this is really a trend. But we are hoping that we will follow the rest of the country.
We do remain worried, because we're just now entering the season in Alaska where everybody moves indoors, and it starts to get darker and colder, and really worried about another surge both in Alaska in and in other places, and want more people to get vaccinated, people to continue to wear masks, and do the public health mitigation efforts that we know can help.
But we're optimistic that, eventually, we will get through this surge. Whether there'll be another surge, we're very afraid.
Well, fingers crossed, of course.
Jeannie Monk of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, thank you so much for your time.
Thanks for looking out for Alaska.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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