House finance committee considers extension of disaster declaration

The sign outside the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, March 4, 2016 (Photo by Megan Ahleman)

Lawmakers have held multiple hearings on a bill to extend the state’s disaster declaration for Alaska’s response to COVID-19. However, the Dunleavy administration changed course on the bill it proposed at the start of the session after a disaster declaration expired in February.

Bill would extend COVID disaster declaration until September 30e. Supporters say the bill would, among other things, allow health care providers to continue offering alternative sites for screening and testing and to continue using telemedicine during the pandemic.

Lawmakers on the House finance committee this month asked state health officials about the need for the extension. The bill was proposed by the Dunleavy administration, which has since declined to extend a disaster declaration in favor of other measures to take some of the same measures.

Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum attempted to explain this approach.

“Yes, we brought this bill forward, then we pushed hard and tried to do it, but just unsure of the level of support from the legislature for a full disaster declaration, we changed course to try to continue our response. ongoing and responsible for the Alaskans, ”Crum told the committee on March 15. “Yes, the tools to do it are HB 76,” he said. “Yes, some of the minimal tools can also be identified in other authorities. And that is the position, we are just trying to keep this going to help the Alaskans so they know we are going on for a solution.

Governor Dunleavy on March 9e said he didn’t think the state needed a “full-fledged” disaster declaration and preferred a limited bill that guaranteed some response, such as the distribution of vaccines. It was the same day the state announced the vaccine is available to anyone who lives and works in Alaska aged 16 and over.

A state declaration is an official acknowledgment of the existence of an emergency. The bill as drafted also includes a payment plan for the response and allows healthcare providers flexibility for telemedicine, screening and testing.

Nikiski committee member Republican Ben Carpenter asked Crum about the duration of a pandemic emergency.

“What are these things that need to happen, by then, as soon as we can make these things happen, that need to happen before we are no longer in disaster? Carpenter wondered. “Because we are currently discussing in this committee the extension of the disaster and I do not know from your answer whether it is necessary or not. “

Crum responded that making the COVID vaccine accessible to everyone will be the deciding factor.

“Once it’s available that’s one of the main things we look at, to let the governor watch, we’ve done our job, we’re trying to protect the Alaskans and trying to educate,” he said. said Crum. “When it comes, as you said, is a disaster necessary to do this? No, the specific authority we have identified for vaccine distribution can be made separately from a disaster declaration.

As of mid-month, the state reported that about 140,000 Alaskans, nearly a fifth of the total population, had completed immunizations.

The declaration’s expiration in February coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak in St. Petersburg. Local health officials point to a drop in compliance with travel testing and quarantine which has contributed to the spread of the disease in the community. The state’s requirement for testing or quarantine became a recommendation at the end of this statement. Autonomous municipalities can issue their own local health ordinances. In some cases, these are based on voluntary compliance and are not strictly enforced.

Hospitals back the extension and say without it they are unsure whether they will comply with federal telemedicine laws.

Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, said local governments have struggled to fill the holes in the absence of the state’s statement.

“Many have seen statements expire since they were tied to state ones and they have either been renewed or now completely expired,” Andreassen said. “Many have had to reconsider their own quarantine and travel test restrictions. Many are running testing or vaccination clinics with questions about available resources, training and authorities. Some are now rushing to deal with the spikes in cases. Many see an uncertain future. Ultimately, it is this uncertainty that ends up posing the most challenges.

A number of Alaskans have also spoken out against the extension. Kelly Fishler of Juneau wanted to focus more on the economic needs of Alaskans.

“Extending this statement further starves our economy by keeping businesses down or empty because no one will patronize them,” Fishler said.

Others testified that they did not think the state was in a state of emergency.

Lawmakers approved some amendments. One would state in state law that people can object to getting the COVID vaccine for religious, medical, or other reasons. Another would require the consent, or of a parent or guardian of a minor, to be vaccinated.

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