Hospital manages with staffing shortage amid surge in COVID cases

Wrangell Medical Center has experienced staffing shortages due to the recent jump in COVID-19 cases, but it has not led to delays in procedures or rescheduling, said Carly Allen, hospital administrator.

“We have been able to maintain full operations thanks to the hard work of our employees and the … (traveler) nursing staff that are still with us,” Allen said.

Wrangell as of Monday was up to 190 COVID-19 infections reported by the borough since Dec. 30, almost three times the community’s highest monthly count of the pandemic and representing about one of every 12 residents.

The community is not alone in a record-setting month. State health officials on Monday reported close to 4,500 COVID-19 cases over the weekend, bringing the total to almost 58,000 new infections over the past 30 days — about one-quarter of all the cases in Alaska since the pandemic started almost two years ago.

State health officials attribute the steep increase in new infections to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus, which is putting several communities into record territory, including Sitka, which hit a single-day record Jan. 26 with 70 new COVID cases.

Hospitalizations also are rising in Alaska, with staffing shortages due to COVID infections putting a heavy strain on several hospitals, particularly in Anchorage.

The challenges at the Wrangell hospital “are due to a variety of reasons including COVID infection, close contact, and child care or family support issues related to COVID,” Allen said in an email on Monday. “Our staff have been dedicated and flexible in this challenging environment.”

Allen last Thursday said she doesn’t have a current number of state-contracted traveler nurses on staff, because “assignment details are changing almost daily.” The state contract is winding down across Alaska.

“Some have left, and we expect others to depart soon,” Allen said.

The state’s original contract covered 90 days October to December and was extended through January. Allen said WMC has a plan to maintain normal operations as the contract nurses leave.

Atlanta-based SnapNurse sent medical personnel to Alaska, including Wrangell, in a staffing deal with DLH Holdings, a health industry outsourcing company that holds the state contract.

The state’s original $87 million, 90-day contract last fall for as many as 470 contract workers called for DLH and its partners to provide medical personnel for hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics and schools throughout Alaska.

A subsequent $20 million 90-day state contract called for medical personnel to support COVID-19 community testing and collection, vaccination and monoclonal antibody therapy.

Both contracts include the option for the state of three one-month extensions.

SnapNurse last fall initially sent eight traveling nurses and certified nurse assistants to Wrangell.

High numbers of staff callouts due to illness or exposure to COVID-infected individuals are presenting challenges across the state, Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said in a briefing call with reporters last week. “But as a whole, the health care system is intact and managing at the moment.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday, Alaska’s rate of new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days is the highest among the 50 states.

Individuals are increasingly relying on at-home tests, rather than going to state-contracted testing sites, which health officials said means there are likely a lot more infections in communities that are not recorded and reported with the state numbers.

At-home tests are available at the Wrangell Fire Department. The borough advises people to call the fire hall at 907-874-3223 to arrange to pick up test kits.

The borough is advising individuals who show symptoms or are a close contact of an infected person to call the Wrangell Medical Center at 907-874-7000 to schedule an appointment for a free COVID-19 test.


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