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As COVID Cases Surge In Alaska, The State Is Forced To Ration Other Care

NOEL KING, HOST:

Almost every hospital in the state of Alaska is full because of COVID. Governor Mike Dunleavy announced crisis standards of care, which basically means hospitals can't provide patients with their normal standards of care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DUNLEAVY: As society goes about its business, there is definitely an emergency occurring in the hospitals.

KING: Lex Treinen, a reporter with Alaska Public Media, went to an Anchorage hospital virtually.

LEX TREINEN, BYLINE: A narrow, crowded hallway makes up Side C of the Alaska Native Medical Center's ICU. There are glass doors on the left and a busy receptionist on the right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Call CCU front desk.

TREINEN: Hospital workers dart in and out of rooms as nursing director Jacque Quantrille guides me down the hallway.

JACQUE QUANTRILLE: We're coming down into our main corridor where most all of our COVID patients are kept.

TREINEN: Through an interior window, I see a nurse in a billowing blue isolation gown and mask treating a motionless patient in a hospital bed. The scene is beamed to my office computer through an iPad mounted atop a rolling cart. Nurse Jorin Calt says, recently, staff used a similar setup for the family of a COVID patient getting CPR.

JORIN CALT: So we were able to pull them up, and we wheeled the cart outside in the hallway so that family could sort of see what was going on.

TREINEN: Visitors aren't allowed in the hospital because of the risk of spreading COVID, so the family watched a screen as nurses tried to resuscitate the patient. They didn't make it.

CALT: It sucks the life out of your soul. You know, day by day, somebody's dying.

TREINEN: Nurses say they're working 18-hour days to keep up with the surge of patients. Nurse Kirsten Larson expresses a common sentiment in this ICU.

KIRSTEN LARSON: We're really tired, but we keep making the choice to come back to work every day.

MIKE STAUFFER: I've never seen this volume with so many people in one unit requiring as much resources as they require.

TREINEN: Nurse in charge Mike Stauffer explains COVID patients just take more time to care for than average ICU patients. The hospital primarily serves the state's Indigenous population, but during this crisis, it's been taking in all residents. It's even admitting people when ICU beds are full and treating them in the ER. Stauffer says this ICU had to double its patient-to-nurse ratio over the past few weeks.

STAUFFER: The last two months have been some of the toughest of my career.

TREINEN: Officials hope an influx of nearly 500 out-of-state health care workers will help ease the strain on staff. Dr. Bob Onders, medical director of the hospital, says the new workers will help. But many will likely be put to use opening new hospital beds instead of giving exhausted staff a rest.

BOB ONDERS: We anticipate, just looking at the case counts, that we have weeks to go yet. And so we need to expand our capacity.

TREINEN: And there's another problem for health care workers here - skepticism of the medical profession. The state's chief medical officer reported recently that a public health center had been vandalized and that health care workers have been threatened. One was even spit on. Nursing director Jacque Quantrille says that's affecting morale.

QUANTRILLE: We, as nurses, went from being the most respected career in the world, you know, in the nation, to being, oh, you're just a naysayer. You're just making this political.

TREINEN: Hospital workers say an even bigger problem is that so few people in the state are getting vaccinated and are masking. Alaska's vaccination rate has fallen behind most of the country, and few areas in this largely Republican state have enacted masking requirements.

For NPR News, I'm Lex Treinen in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNKLE SONG, "AR.MOUR (FEAT. ELLIOTT POWER AND MIINK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.