State moves ahead without emergency status

Alaska became one of two states in the United States without a formal COVID-19 public health disaster declaration on Feb. 14 and the only state without any disaster-related provisions, at least right now.

The physically isolated and medically fragile state is also seeing a sharp reduction in coronavirus cases.

But without the declaration, everything from hospital coronavirus treatment units to space for large vaccination clinics is in limbo, observers say. In place since March, it provided legal backing for state health orders, as well as flexibilities to respond to the virus and deliver vaccine to Alaskans.

“Alaska is definitely in uncharted territory here,” said Emily Ford, government relations director with Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital in Anchorage.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a news conference Feb. 14, the day the declaration expired, said it was time to start moving Alaska past restrictions. Alaska boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Declining daily case counts have been followed by dropping hospitalization and death statistics.

The expiration led to the immediate closure of a popular drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Lake Otis Parkway on Providence property operated in partnership with the municipality. The “alternate care site” was authorized by federal waivers granted by the declaration, hospital officials say.

That site was dismantled Feb. 16, according to Providence spokesman Mikal Canfield. Starting Feb. 17, a new testing site will open at the municipal permit center, located at 4700 Elmore Road, according to an alert. All other testing sites are operating normally.

The end of the declaration is also expected to change the way Providence and Alaska Regional Hospital care for COVID-19 patients because temporary building configurations required federal waivers that hinged on the emergency, hospital representatives say. At Providence, administrators wonder if Alaskans who need out-of-state care can still make use of telehealth visits with Outside providers.

Another major change: the relaxation of travel policies that required incoming travelers either show a negative COVID-19 test result or quarantine for five days, policies credited with helping reduce the spread of the virus in a state with a vulnerable health-care system isolated from the Lower 48 by ocean on one side and Canada on the other.

In place since June, mandatory airport testing had so far identified more than 2,350 positive COVID-19 cases, according to legislative testimony this month.

Now officials lack the authority to mandate those restrictions, which become voluntary.

At Alaska Airlines, messaging to the public will adopt the state’s new language, a spokesman said Feb. 15: the word “recommend” and “encourage” will replace “required” and it will be made clear that nonresidents can get airport testing for free instead of paying $250, as announced Sunday.

State officials also said last week said the end of the emergency means losing a third of the state’s $23 million monthly food stamp aid from the federal government.

Now people in various sectors are waiting to see what happens next.

Some are celebrating.

Steve Perrins, who owns Rainy Pass Lodge in the Alaska Range, said he was “very happy” to hear about the governor’s decision when a reporter told him about it Monday. Perrins hosted Dunleavy at the lodge last year when the governor accompanied a veteran on a hunting trip through the Wounded Warrior program.

Perrins said both he and his wife, Denise, who are in their mid-60s, came down with COVID-19 last fall around Thanksgiving. His son, a medic in Anchorage, got the virus in October. None of them got severely ill.

But, Perrins said, the virus has taken a toll in a different way. The lodge lost a $9,000 booking recently after Iditarod officials cancelled the race’s ceremonial start and other spectator favorites due to coronavirus concerns. Last year, a group of four booked a trip but one of them tested positive though he had no symptoms and was out $4,500 for the trip.

“It’s really destroying our economy,” he said.

Others are disappointed and frustrated that the disaster declaration was allowed to expire.

“Everyone’s scrambling trying to figure out what is allowed, what is not allowed,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “It’s a mess. It’s a total mess.”

The association lobbied hard for the declaration to continue starting in November, when Dunleavy signalled he might not sign the first of several 30-day extensions including the one that expired over the weekend.

It’s possible the state will no longer have the authority to hold mass vaccine clinics at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Kosin said Feb. 15. It’s also possible that out-of-state medical providers who received licensing flexibility to work here temporarily and boost limited staffing need to apply for an Alaska license to continue.

“Is not having a declaration worth not having $8 million on a monthly basis? We’re in a fiscal crisis … I don’t understand,” Kosin said, referring to the projected loss of food stamp funding. “We’re obviously frustrated by this, that it didn’t get done. Now we’re trying to clean it up.”

Dunleavy and his top health officials had urged the Legislature to use its authority to extend the declaration until September, saying the administration lacked the authority for a 30-day extension.

A dysfunctional Alaska Legislature failed to renew the declaration. Some critics in the Legislature incorrectly linked the statewide emergency to locally imposed school closures and actions like the monthlong hunker down in Anchorage in December. The expiration of the state declaration does not change locally adopted coronavirus restrictions.

Most House members asked the governor to issue a new declaration, and the Alaska Senate backed a resolution asking the governor to act.

The governor’s decision to let the declaration expire makes Alaska the only state in the country without any kind of broad statewide public health emergency declaration. A declaration by Michigan’s governor was allowed to expire last year following a state supreme court decision but the state’s health department enacted a series of orders that mirrored those in the governor’s declaration.

In Alaska, state officials on Feb. 14 released three new health advisories addressing travel and also the seafood industry, where requirements have been replaced with recommendations that “should” be followed on fishing vessels and in processing plants.

At least one industry member — Trident Seafoods, the Seattle-based company with numerous plants and vessels operating in Alaska — said there would be no changes at any of their facilities. Trident’s Akutan plant experienced a serious COVID-19 outbreak last month and several company vessels also reported cases.

Dunleavy issued a memo to state commissioners Sunday telling them to continue following policies in place under the declaration.

It’s possible the Legislature could take action to make up for some aspects of the emergency declaration.

By the end of day Feb. 16, the governor said, he wants commissioners to provide his administration a summary of how the declaration “affects your department so that we can prepare to address them in an orderly fashion and conduct a methodical return to normal state operations in a manner that prioritizes the health and safety of Alaskans.”

Updated: 
02/17/2021 - 7:55am