At a crucial time in the pandemic, dozens of emergency workers arrive at Anchorage hospital

Members of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team listen at an orientation at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday morning, Oct. 1, 2021. The team of over 30 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and logistics managers, arrived the day before. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Nearly 500 emergency health workers are arriving in hospitals across Alaska this week as the state struggles to get the COVID-19 crisis under control.

Dozens of them arrived at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage this week, where COVID-19 hospitalizations recently led the hospital to announce crisis standards of care. 

Administrator Bob Onders said the new workers will hopefully give exhausted staff a break, but many staff will also be required to expand the current ICU capacity to care for an expected increase of patients.

“We have, you know, 600 to 700 nurses here,” he said. “So 40 nurses is a help, but as a proportional response it still is challenging.”

In addition to about 50 workers contracted by the state, ANMC is also getting a federal emergency team of about 35.

On Friday, that group, the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, was sitting under the fluorescent lights of a conference room for orientation.

The team, which includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and logistics experts, heard they were being deployed to Alaska just two days earlier.

“We landed last night, we started right away,” said Gina Smith, the team leader.

As part of the group, Smith has been to disasters from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. Since the pandemic hit, the team has been on the front lines.

“We were in California when the cruise ships came in,” she said.

Now Alaska is on the front lines of the crisis, with five times the case national average case rate.

Incoming staff nurses get trained in on IV equipment at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The team is learning about Alaska’s medical system, ANMC’s daily operations and will get an orientation on Alaska Native culture.

Nursing Director Sadie Anderson said that staff has been working extra shifts to keep up with the patients, and the new staff will be a big relief.

“A lot of the nurses have been having to work five and six shifts a week,” she said, “So we’re begging people to work extra. So this is going to help give those nurses a break.”

She said it will also help decrease the nurse-to-patient ratio. She said COVID-19 patients require more nurses per patient because of the complicated care they require.

“This will really help us to be able to have a safer patient load for each nurse and to be able to provide better care for the patients,” she said.

Most of the incoming staff are used to seeing disasters and trauma. Nursing assistant Tracy Williams, who is here as part of the state contract, said she’s not burned out even after a year and a half of traveling the country.

CNA Tracy Williams (in red) and two other colleagues prepare for an onboarding session at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Williams of Stone Mountain, Georgia, says she’s traveled around the country as a CNA. “I have seen a moose in Maine, So that ain’t no big rah, rah rah, for me,” she said.

“To me, it’s just like any other job: being a mom, you know, being a parent, period,” said the mother of four. “That’s not the only place I can say that I’ve cared for people.”

Williams, who is from Georgia, just got done with a stint in Michigan. She’s worked in Colorado, Maine, Montana and North Dakota, and already did a stint in Alaska while studying to become a physical therapist.

“I was in Georgia for three days, well, four days, and I was here by Saturday, Sunday — that’s exhausting,” she said, “But it’s the motivation for what you love to do that gives you the push to say, ‘Come on, girl, you can sleep on the plane,’” she said.

Despite her exhaustion, Williams said she’s excited to help her fellow health workers in Alaska when they need it most.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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