At least 260 Alaska health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Nearly half said they have been exposed while at work, the report said.
Those counted included “physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, nursing aides, EMTs, first responders, behavioral health professionals, and others working in inpatient and outpatient health care,” while close to a third were listed more generally as working in health care.
Eight of the 260 workers needed hospitalization. The state did not report any deaths among the workers.
A fifth of the workers who got COVID-19 worked in hospitals, according to the report, while nearly a quarter worked in some sort of rehabilitation, assisted living or long-term care setting.
Nationwide, between mid-February and mid-July, there were 100,570 health care workers with COVID-19, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Globally, around one in seven of the world’s coronavirus cases involved a health care worker, according to data from the World Health Organization released last week.
In Alaska, the 260 workers are just a small fraction of the more than 8,000 COVID-19 cases that have been identified so far.
Most of the information available in the state’s latest report came from direct interviews with contact tracers, which means that it is not complete data, said Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a physician with the state, on a call Thursday.
The information is limited because the occupation of the person who tested positive isn’t always known.
Still, the data they do have is valuable because it helps health officials understand how and where the virus is spreading, and where to direct resources.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said her team’s policy recommendations — like the implementation of a universal mask mandate in health care settings — was informed by this data.
“We’re always interested in the ways transmission happens or doesn’t happen, and what that looks like,” she said. “This data helps clarify what sort of risk there is and isn’t, and who that risk looks like, so we can figure out better ways to protect them.”
Ohlsen said that she was surprised by some of the trends that appeared in the report, particularly the fact that only about half of the workers reported possible exposure at work.
“When I was practicing inpatient and outpatient medicine in March and April and May, I remember being very, very worried that I was going to get the virus at work,” she said.
She said that when she looked at the data, she saw that a lot of the workers, about 29%, had gotten through their households or through community spread, not necessarily through work. Another 17% didn’t have a known exposure, while 3% of the group got the virus through travel Outside.
“I think the way we’re handling it, it’s safe to say that hospitals and nursing homes are the safest environments that you can go in right now,” added Jared Kosin, CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, during the same call.
That’s due to increased health and safety measures that have been put in place since the beginning of the pandemic, Kosin said.
Still, the potential for health care workers getting sick continues a huge concern, especially as hospitals head into one of their busiest times of year, and flu season looms, Kosin said.
“When you’re talking about health care workers, you’re talking about the people who are on the front lines, who are providing care,” and without them — even outside of a pandemic — a hospital or nursing home wouldn’t be able to care for people, Kosin said during a follow-up call.
Hospitals and nursing homes always watch staff levels, from vacations to illnesses, in order to make sure they have enough staffing, he said.
Zink said that her department has been tracking cases involving health care workers since March, and that the reason why this data was not released until this week was due to state regulations that make sure no personal identifying information is shared.
Now that more cases have been identified, “we’re able to really compile that data together, we’re not identifying individuals, and so we share that information in our weekly report,” she said.