Health officials encouraged Juneau residents to be vigilant about COVID-19 mitigation and to get tested if they feel symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. The city has several testing cites open to the public including at Juneau International Airport, shown in this October 2020 photo, where emergency worker Melanie Chavez takes a COVID-19 test sample. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

Health officials encouraged Juneau residents to be vigilant about COVID-19 mitigation and to get tested if they feel symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. The city has several testing cites open to the public including at Juneau International Airport, shown in this October 2020 photo, where emergency worker Melanie Chavez takes a COVID-19 test sample. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

Continued COVID caseload putting pressure on Juneau’s health care, officials say

Vaccines urged as hospitals are strained by COVID

Juneau’s health care infrastructure is faring better than other portions of the state, but city officials said Tuesday the increase in COVID-19 cases is still staining the system.

“Our capacity to handle a car crash or serious injury has not changed, we are able to handle those situations,” said Kim McDowell, chief nursing officer for Bartlett Regional Hospital, during a local COVID-19 briefing .”But when someone requires a higher level of care that would require a patient to medevac, that’s where it gets a little bit sticky.”

McDowell said that the number of COVID-19 cases remains high and that those patients often require a high level of care even after they’ve recovered from the virus. Bartlett dedicated one of its wings entirely to COVID-19 patients, McDowell said. According to McDowell, hospitals statewide are experiencing staffing shortages and current staff members are tired as workloads can vary greatly from day to day.

Officials noted the strain a prolonged pandemic was having on the public and health care workers but encouraged people to remain vigilant about combating the spread of the virus.

“We’re all burned out on it, but so what, being burned out doesn’t do anything,” Watt said.

The City and Borough of Juneau is seeing pandemic-high numbers of COVID-19 cases, even as the city boasts a vaccination rate among the highest in the state. Juneau has approximately 193 active cases, the city reported Tuesday, with most of the spread coming from social gatherings among family and friends. Five people are currently hospitalized at Bartlett Regional Hospital for COVID-19, city data shows.

“It’s kind of an unchanged situation, we have too many cases and we continue to have too many cases,” said City Manager Rorie Watt. “We just need the community to do better.”

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Most of the community spread the city is seeing is not coming from large gatherings, according to Deputy City Manager Robert Barr, but from household gatherings among family and friends. The Juneau School District was seeing some positive cases, Barr said, but officials said the mitigation techniques appeared to be working as there aren’t large outbreaks in schools.

Officials repeatedly encouraged people to get vaccinated, and Barr said the number of vaccinations was still slowly increasing among multiple age groups. According to Barr, health officials are still waiting on guidance from federal regulators regarding another dose of the Pfizer vaccine for older adults, but the city is planning a mass vaccination clinic — possibly next month — for when that information does come.

The continued high caseload is putting pressure on the state’s health care infrastructure, Watt said, noting the situation locally wasn’t comparable to the hospitals in Anchorage that are struggling with the number of COVID-19 patients.

“I think that’s the result of a lot of people participating for the good of the community by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask,” Watt said.

Getting vaccinated was one of the most patriotic things one could do for their country and community, Watt said, and encourage people to reach out to friends and family who haven’t done so.

Officials urged residents to get tested if they believe they’ve been exposed to the virus but at the same time said the city had a large backlog of data to report and was having difficulty with contact tracing. Barr asked residents who had transportation to get tested at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center rather than the pop-up testing clinics the city was hosting, as those were meant for people without transportation. The city had secured a good amount of supplies, Barr said, and officials were not as concerned about logistics as at the start of the pandemic.

Several members of the public asked if there would be more stringent policies such as limiting social gatherings and reducing business hours, but Watt said for now the city wanted to take a different approach. Mitigation measures appeared to be working, Watt said, noting that the city has already implemented indoor masking and social distancing mandates.

“We just had a successful cruise ship season. The cruise ships, these floating cities, found a way to bring people here safely,” Watt said. “It’s mitigation measures that need to be targeted rather than a blunt instrument.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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