US: Doctors in Alaska making ‘difficult choices’ amid COVID surge

PAHO director says Alaska doctors are deciding which patients get hospital beds amid worst COVID outbreak in the US.

Slightly more than 50 percent of the population in Alaska is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, below the national average of 56 percent [File: Nathan Howard/Reuters]

Although coronavirus cases have seen an overall decline in the United States in recent weeks, at least one state is experiencing a surge in new infections that has inundated its hospitals and forced medical workers to ration care.

The state of Alaska has reported the highest per capita infection rate in the country over the last seven days, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The US is reporting a national average of 106,000 daily new infections, according to the CDC, a 13 percent drop from the previous week, but in Alaska, more than 6,000 new cases have been detected over the past week.

Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Americas branch of the World Health Organization, warned on Wednesday that doctors in Alaska have been forced to make “difficult choices” amid the surge in cases.

“In the state of Alaska, which today reports the US’s worst COVID outbreak, emergency rooms are overwhelmed with COVID patients and doctors face difficult choices about how to allocate hospital beds,” Etienne said during a regular news briefing.

Local media reported that the new wave of infections is fuelled by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, as well as stagnated vaccination rates. According to the CDC, a bit more than 50 percent of the population in Alaska is fully vaccinated, below the national average of 56 percent.

‘It’s gut-wrenching’

The COVID-19 surge is worsened by Alaska’s limited healthcare system that largely relies on hospitals in Anchorage, the biggest city.

It is where the state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center, is overwhelmed with patients and was the first weeks ago to declare crisis-of-care protocols, meaning doctors are sometimes prioritising care based on who has the best odds of survival.

Since then, 19 other healthcare facilities in Alaska, including Anchorage’s two other hospitals and Fairbanks Memorial, have also entered crisis care mode, something overtaxed facilities in other states have had to do, including Idaho and Wyoming.

Medical workers “describe the emotions of: ‘You hear a code is happening, someone is passing away,'” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

“That is devastating. You never want to lose a patient. But in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘OK, another bed is now available that is critically needed.’ And how do you balance those emotions? It’s gut-wrenching.”

PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said 37 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 [Gustavo Graf/Reuters]

Meanwhile, Etienne said across the Americas region 1.2 million new coronavirus cases and 24,000 additional deaths were reported during the past week, while only 37 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to date.

“Seven countries have vaccinated more than 70 percent of the population, just as many have yet to vaccinate 20 percent of their populations,” said Etienne, who pointed out that Jamaica, Nicaragua and Haiti have yet to reach even 10 percent coverage.

She added that 875,000 vaccine doses have arrived in countries across the region, but this remains insufficient.

PAHO announced last week that it had reached agreements with Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac to buy 8.5 million vaccine doses for 2021 and another 80 million doses next year.

Source: Al Jazeera, AP