COVID-19 related hospitalizations are hitting record highs in Alaska and hospital leaders say the health care system is under severe strain and getting worse. In an interview Tuesday, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said he will not ask residents to get vaccinated, issue a mask mandate or order other COVID-19 restrictions.
Asked what the city would do to reduce strain on hospitals, Bronson said: “What steps can we take? The hospitals are privately managed organizations.”
“I don’t know what more we can do,” Bronson said, calling the idea of a mask mandate “very inappropriate.”
Bronson recently requested and the Assembly approved $8 million in funds to address the COVID-19 outbreak, for increased testing, vaccinations and mass care.
While Bronson said it’s “pretty clear” there is a crisis in Anchorage’s hospitals, he suggested hospital capacity is suffering due to a staffing shortage made worse by requiring employees to be vaccinated.
“I’m telling you my email box is blowing up with people who are health care professionals and who refused to take the vaccine, and to the point where they’ll walk away from their job,” he said. “So, we have to understand that mandating vaccines amongst many of these health care professionals is not going to make things better, it’s simply going to make things worse.”
Anchorage hospital officials said Wednesday they have not seen that.
Shirley Young, spokeswoman for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which operates the Alaska Native Medical Center, said staffing shortages there aren’t due to workers leaving over vaccine policies. The hospital is requiring all employees be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.
“Some of our newly hired staff have expressed their appreciation to join an organization that places such a high priority on the health and safety of our patients and staff,” Young said in an emailed statement. “ANTHC has seen little to no impact at this time as our deadline for compliance is October 15th. Rather, despite our best efforts to keep each other safe, our communities continue to be plagued by disinformation that is encouraging Alaskans to go unvaccinated. The resulting sharp increases of COVID-19 and the increasing workload for our hospital staff are the primary issues we are responding to at this time.”
Similarly, Mikal Canfield, a spokesman for Providence Alaska, said the hospital is not aware of any resignations due to its vaccine policy. It’s requiring all caregivers be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption.
At Alaska Regional Hospital, staff are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, though it is encouraging staff to do so as it is one of the best ways to prevent an infection, according to the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Ballard.
The facility’s vaccination rate among staff is hovering around 70%, Ballard said.
At a legislative hearing Wednesday, Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said he wasn’t aware of mandatory vaccinations being an issue with hospital staffing.
“I have not heard complaints from our members that they are concerned about seeing an exodus of staff over objections to being vaccinated,” he said. “… We have not heard that has had a detrimental effect on staffing levels.”
Some Assembly members and public health experts have called on the mayor to urge vaccinations or take other actions like instituting a mask mandate. Studies, including a state report on Anchorage’s restrictions last summer, have shown that masking, capacity restrictions and gathering limitations help ease the burden on hospitals and prevent deaths by slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The state report found that Anchorage’s emergency orders — including a mask mandate and limited capacity in bars, restaurants, gyms, and indoor public venues — likely caused major drops in daily COVID-19 case counts.
Bronson said instead of mandates, the city is using its website to advise residents that they “need to and should follow the various protocols, always, from something as simplistic as washing their hands to as complex as taking the vaccine.”
“We’re just doing our best to educate the public. That’s my responsibility,” he said.
The Anchorage Health Department is also working with the state to provide monoclonal antibody treatment, according to the mayor’s office, and the city is conducting information outreach regarding vaccines and vaccine clinics, testing and prevention strategies.
Unvaccinated people make up the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations that are overburdening Alaska’s health care systems, data show.
As of Tuesday, 197 people statewide were hospitalized with COVID-19, with more than half — 107 — in Anchorage, according to state data reported Wednesday. Those with COVID-19 make up 18.3% of hospitalizations in Anchorage, although the statistics don’t include long-term COVID-19 patients who no longer test positive but still need hospital care.
State health officials have said everyone, including people who are vaccinated, should wear masks indoors where transmission rates are high, and have encouraged vaccinations.
In Anchorage, 58% of residents 12 years and older were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, falling short of the 70% goal set by the previous mayoral administration.
In a letter to Bronson on Friday, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance implored the mayor and his administration to join her in a “unified effort to combat this crisis,” beginning with a joint statement urging residents to do everything they can, including to get vaccinated.
“If the mayor would come out and urge folks to get vaccinated, to wear a mask, to do whatever they can to help stop the case numbers from increasing, to help our neighbors, to help the hospitals — I think that would really help. People would listen to him,” she said in an interview.
LaFrance said Wednesday afternoon that she had not received a response from the mayor.
In the interview Tuesday, Bronson said it is not his place to tell residents to be vaccinated. Public service announcements on social media and a recent Nixle message from Bronson to residents have urged testing but have stopped short of asking residents to get vaccinated or wear masks.
That’s left some people “scratching their heads,” LaFrance said.
Bronson’s own chief medical officer at the city health department has called vaccinations the best tool available to combat the virus.
“If people or citizens are counting on politicians of any stripe of any level of government to make their personal health care decisions for them, we’re in a pretty sad state,” Bronson said during the interview. “Those are decisions you’re supposed to be making with health care professionals and your doctor, and I don’t want to inject myself into that process.”
He said he is comfortable urging testing, but said he does not feel comfortable urging the vaccine.
“As far as I’ve heard, no one’s had ill effects from testing. So, it’s very simplistic. Let’s get tested, let’s get the data. Without the data, it’s very difficult for policymakers to make coherent decisions,” Bronson said.
The mayor said he is paying attention to case numbers and severity of infections, including which ones are asymptomatic.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the vaccines are safe and effective, and that serious adverse events following vaccination are rare. For example, severe allergic reactions occur in about 2 to 5 people per 1 million vaccinated in the U.S.
“Trying to get someone to take the vaccine — that’s a different thing, because there, there is somewhat of a risk there. It doesn’t seem to be very large,” Bronson said.
Bronson also said he will still not take the COVID-19 vaccine at this time because he has already had the virus and has natural immunity.
“Why take the risk of any level, when I have a greater protection from the immunity I have now?” Bronson said.
A recent study shows that having both natural immunity from a previous infection and being vaccinated offers the best protection.
Assembly Chair LaFrance said that because the pandemic is a public health crisis, the choice to get vaccinated is not just a personal decision, it’s one that protects other residents.
“We need to have a public response, and to have a public response, we need everybody working together doing everything they can, including urging others to get vaccinated and to wear masks, LaFrance said.
The Assembly could try to take legislative action and institute its own mask ordinance in the city, LaFrance said. But Bronson would be likely to veto it, she said, and the Assembly would then need a supermajority to override it. Even if it did, it is up to the executive branch — the mayor — to enforce ordinances, she said.
When asked whether he would veto such an ordinance, Bronson said, “I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Local epidemiologist Janet Johnston, who resigned from the city’s health department in July after Bronson took office, said at the very least, Anchorage needs a mask mandate. If the Assembly passed its own legislation implementing a mask mandate — even without code enforcement from the city — many people would follow it and it would help businesses to implement mask rules without losing public support, she said.
“I’m horrified right now. We’ve got a situation where the health care system is just totally in crisis. They are asking for help, and no one will do anything,” Johnston said. “And what I find the most scary is that, as many cases as we’ve had, we have a lot of people who are still susceptible.”
Daily News reporters Zaz Hollander and Annie Berman contributed.