Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska health authorities have used many tools to assist the public and mitigate community virus spread. One of the most helpful of those tools? People.
Tina Williams, a registered nurse from Tampa, Florida, has been working at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy’s “Y” vaccine clinic at the corner of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways since the beginning of November, through a state program that contracted health care workers from the Lower 48 to aid during Alaska’s COVID crisis.
The program, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Sept. 22, drew hundreds of nurses, technicians, therapists, social workers and other health care professionals to the state amid the delta wave, which was by far the most severe and deadly COVID spike Alaskans had seen.
Williams, and many other contracted health care workers, are set to go back home at the end of the month.
She said her time working in Soldotna has been a positive experience.
“Everybody’s been pro-vaccine; we’ve only had a couple people that were not happy about it,” Williams said.
She’s contracted through SnapNurse, an agency that connects health care professionals with facilities that have immediate and long-term staffing needs.
When Dunleavy and state Director of Public Health Heidi Hedberg announced the initiative during the peak of the late-summer wave, they said the more than 400 health care workers — partnered through their own agencies and through a federal health service outsourcing organization called DLH Solutions — would cost the state $87 million. The total, they said, is 100% reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hedberg originally requested 297 registered nurses, 114 certified nursing assistants and patient care technicians, 15 respiratory therapists, 14 medical lab personnel, 12 surgical technicians, 11 social workers, two licensed practical nurses and one physician for the state.
Gene Wiseman, the section chief of the state Division of Public Health, said during a December press briefing that 46 of those contracted health care workers were stationed on the Kenai Peninsula.
Justin Ruffridge, a pharmacist and the owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and the “Y” clinic, said allowing additional staffing has enabled him to extend vaccine clinic hours.
“We’re seeing a lot more people,” Ruffridge said.
Williams said she always knew she wanted to be a nurse.
“I got married at 18, and then I was a housewife for a while,” she said. “When the kids went back to school, the youngest one went to kindergarten and I went to nursing school.”
For the first 15 years of her career, she said she worked only weekends while her husband watched the kids.
One of the biggest differences between her home in Florida and Soldotna, Williams said, is the weather.
“The weather — I like it. I mean, because I’m not you, I don’t get to see snow,” she said. “So it’s pretty, I love it.”
She said she wants to bring her kids back to Alaska someday.
“We definitely have to come back so they can get in the snow,” Williams said.
During their stay on the central peninsula, the contracted health care workers have been staying at a local hotel and have been able to adventure a little on the weekends. Their bus driver has been trying to get them out on their days off.
“He’s from Alaska, so he’s been awesome taking us around (with) the tours he’s given us,” Williams said.
One of the more challenging parts of the assignment for Williams is being away from her family for so long. With the time difference, it’s hard to catch up with her kids before they go to bed.
“When I get home, everybody’s getting ready to go to bed,” she said. “If I want to talk, I have to do it fast.”
When she gets back home to Florida in a few weeks, she said she’s excited to take time for herself and her family.
“This is a long assignment, so I’ll probably take a few weeks off,” Williams said. “And my daughter’s birthday is coming up, so I’ll do that.”
KaDaisjah Roberts is a certified nurse’s assistant working at the “Y” clinic. She’s been traveling across the United States for different temporary health care assignments since she graduated from her program, she said.
“My teacher actually told me about this company, so I worked with them at a few jobs back home, and then I took a couple travel assignments,” Roberts said.
She’s from Alabama, but has worked in Minnesota, Southern California and Ohio, among other places.
Roberts said her time in the Last Frontier has given her new experiences, including seeing moose and other Alaska animals.
“It’s been wonderful. I like the wildlife most,” she said.
But even more than that, Roberts said the work she’s doing has been fulfilling.
“It’s been awesome, everyone has been very helpful and really experienced,” she said. “It’s great to see and actually help vaccinate everyone. I feel like we’ve done a good deed.”
Roberts is moving to Arizona for another health care job after she leaves Alaska.
“I’m going to get a local job for a minute and then maybe I’ll be back on the road,” she said.
Tiera Jeffers, a licensed practical nurse on assignment at the “Y” from Chicago, said she’s been traveling for health care jobs for a while, too.
She became an LPN in 2018 but has worked in California, Florida, New York and a few other states before coming to Alaska.
Most patients she’s interacted with have been supportive of getting the COVID vaccine.
“A lot of people are pro-vaccine (and) pro-booster,” Jeffers said. “Mostly we’ve been getting boosters so that’s good.”
There are also additional health care staff contracted at Central Peninsula Hospital. External Affairs Director Bruce Richards said the help has alleviated a lot of pressure on local health professionals.
Hospitalizations reached an all-time-high on Oct. 28, with CPH operating at 140% capacity and treating 25 COVID-positive patients. October was the deadliest month CPH had seen throughout the course of the pandemic.
When contracted health care workers began trickling in the state in November, Richards said more patients were able to be treated. Now, as COVID cases are still declining, he said the local health care workers who have been working in the hospital since the beginning have been returning to more normal shifts and operations.
Richards said CPH has had a total of 16 RNs, three CNAs and two respiratory therapists. The state has announced that some contracts may be extended through as late as March, but that the workers’ original contracts are through Dec. 31.
“It’s been an enormous help,” Richards said. “They couldn’t have come at a better time.”