With a mixture of sadness and frustration, Dr Barbara Creighton has seen a number of her patients at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital die with COVID-19 in recent weeks, including a man in his 20s.
Creighton tried to find out why. Some have said that it is God’s will whether or not they get the virus. Others have expressed fears of side effects. She has seen loved ones destroyed by a loved one’s choice to forgo the vaccine.
“It’s just heartbreaking and devastating to go through all of this and see it happen,” she said. “But it’s a personal choice. We do all we can to educate them, and then we need to step back and respect that choice. That’s all we can do.
Not all Alaskans who recently die from the virus are vaccinated, state officials say.
A dozen deaths from COVID-10 have been reported in the past three weeks, including four on Tuesday alone, according to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services. They range from a man in his twenties to a man over 80, with half in his fifties and sixties.
Seven lived in or near Fairbanks, five in Mat-Su, and one in Anchorage.
“When we didn’t have a vaccine and we knew how highly contagious this disease is, you could see how people were trying their best not to get it and keep getting it,” said Dr Anne Zink, Chief Medical Officer of the State. . “But what you see now in the emergency room and in the hospital are people who are not getting vaccinated. Some get sick and some unfortunately die. “
Doctors across the state are describing patients with COVID-19 sick enough to be hospitalized and still not believing they need to be vaccinated – or even that the virus is real.
An increase in the number of coronavirus patients over the past month has expanded the intensive care capacity of the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center before declining recently, according to Dr Thomas Quimby, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department. .
Quimby said it had been particularly difficult treating several unvaccinated men in their 50s who died from COVID-19 but did not suffer from any underlying medical conditions, including one who went to the emergency room due to cardiac arrest.
“Which was really tragic because it looked like it could have been avoided with a free shot,” he said.
Meanwhile, Quimby said, it is becoming “exhausting” to talk to some patients about their diagnosis of COVID-19.
“I still have people, they don’t believe me. They tell me I’m lying. They tell me I’m trying to make more money. There is still a lot of conspiratorial disinformation, ”he said. “Honestly, they decided they weren’t going to get the vaccine before there was even a vaccine. It’s really hard to move the needle with them.
Declining case rate in Alaska
Overall rates of coronavirus cases in Alaska are dropping, a success story that state officials are linked to with the wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccine. The first vaccines hit the state in mid-December. The state opened eligibility to anyone aged 16 and over on March 9, the first in the country to do so.
As of Friday, just under half of Alaskans aged 16 and over were fully immunized. Alaska’s 14-day average case levels on Thursday fell to the intermediate category for the first time since September.
But the pace of the vaccine has stalled, particularly in Mat-Su, around Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula and parts of the southeast. These regions remain in the highest alert category, with more than 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. An epidemic continues in the Ketchikan area.
Washington Post analysis has shown that, adjusted for unvaccinated people, the national death rate is “about the same as two months ago and is barely declining” and hospitalizations are as high as there were. has three months, although the case rates are falling.
State health officials are trying to reach Alaskans in new ways. Zink said she will be visiting the Kenai Peninsula next week. The first gun show vaccination clinic is taking place this weekend in Palmer.
Indeed, according to officials, new cases of COVID-19 are occurring largely in unprotected Alaskans, especially in places where residents, for a variety of reasons, including concerns about side effects or safety, are reluctant to be vaccinated.
There are also growing concerns that the fall could lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people. State health officials this week reported a sharp increase in the presence of a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus in Alaska, which is also increasing the urgency of the vaccine.
More than 360 Alaskans have died from the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020, a tally that has started to slow as vaccination rates rise, especially among the elderly and medically compromised.
The numbers are much lower now, but all recent deaths are among unvaccinated people.
Although there are scattered reports of people getting vaccinated but still ending up at least briefly hospitalized, only one vaccinated Alaskan has died, an older patient suffering from multiple medical conditions, according to Zink. The number of people who die from COVID-19 since December is not 100%, she said, “but it is over 99%.”
A recent wave of COVID-19 from Fairbanks
“We were pressured to take care of these people,” she said. “Our respiratory therapy department was amazing in what it could do, but… we were fortunate that other hospitals were helping us. We could be moved to Anchorage as they had space. “
At Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, emergency room doctor Dr Nick Papacostas has not recently killed patients with COVID-19. But he saw a few unvaccinated people – all under the age of 50 – sick enough to be admitted to hospital and treated in intensive care.
He does not ask them why they chose not to be vaccinated.
“I just say very kindly, ‘You are sick with COVID, unfortunately. We will take care of you, ”Papacostas said. “And I hope being gravely ill with COVID helps it sink in.”
Zink still works six or seven emergency teams per month at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. She said she has seen COVID-19 patients who wanted to be vaccinated but haven’t made it yet or don’t know where to go. Others, however, don’t want it.
Zink said she told a patient with respiratory problems who needed to be hospitalized that he had tested positive for the virus. “No, I didn’t,” he replied.
On another shift, she admitted relatives to the hospital with COVID-19, Zink said. They were grateful for the care, but their perspective has not changed.
“They haven’t been vaccinated,” she said. “They had no intention of getting the vaccine.”
Then again, Zink also sees patients who were planning to get the vaccine at some point and didn’t have time or didn’t know how to get an appointment.
“I hear ‘I hadn’t gotten to it yet, I was going to do it,’” she said. “It’s really motivating for me: what can I do to encourage people to get vaccinated now, so that they don’t have to see them in the emergency room?”
Anyone 12 years and older who lives or works in Alaska can now receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Alaskans can visit covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322 to sign up for a vaccine appointment, and new appointments are added regularly. The telephone line is open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.
Mat-Su residents can call 907-373-2628 weekdays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.