Lawmakers are considering a bill to extend the state disaster declaration for Alaska’s response to COVID-19 after the previous declaration expired in February.
Proponents say the bill would allow healthcare providers to continue to offer alternative screening and testing sites and continue to use telemedicine during the pandemic.
A bill first proposed by the Dunleavy administration would extend a declaration of a COVID-19 disaster until September 30. But the administration has since backed away from extending a disaster declaration in favor of other measures to take some of the same steps.
Alaska Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Adam Crum tried to explain the reversal.
“Yes, we submitted this bill and then we pushed hard and tried to get it done, but unsure of the level of support in the Legislature for a full disaster declaration, we changed course to try to continue our ongoing response. accountable for Alaskans,” Crum told the committee on March 15.
“Yes, the tools to do this are HB 76,” he said. “Yes, some of the minimal tools can also be identified in other authorities. And that’s the position, we’re just trying to continue this to help Alaskans so they know we’re continuing for a solution.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said March 9 that he doesn’t think the state needs a “full-fledged” disaster declaration, and he prefers a limited bill that ensures some response, like distribution of vaccines. It was the same day the state announced the vaccine would be available to everyone 16 and older who lives and works in Alaska.
A state declaration is an official acknowledgment of the existence of an emergency. The bill as written also includes a payment plan for the response, and it provides flexibility for health care providers for telemedicine and screening and testing.
Representative Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, asked Crum at a recent meeting about the duration of a pandemic emergency.
“What are these things that need to happen, by when…before we are no longer plagued by disaster? Carpenter asked. “Because we are discussing right now in this committee the extension of the disaster and I don’t know from your answer whether it is necessary or not.”
Crum responded that making the vaccine available to anyone who wants it would be the deciding factor.
“Once it’s available, that’s one of the main metrics we look at, to let the governor say, ‘Look, we’ve done our job, we’re trying to protect Alaskans and trying to educate'” , Crum said. “Regarding, 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.
By mid-month, the state reported that about 140,000 Alaskans, or nearly one-fifth of the total population, had been fully vaccinated.
The expiration of the disaster declaration in February coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 in St. Petersburg. Local health officials pointed to a decline in compliance with travel testing and quarantine protocols that contributed to the spread of the disease in the Southeast Alaska community.
The state requirement for testing or quarantine has been replaced with a recommendation at the end of this statement. Autonomous municipalities can issue their own local health ordinances. But in some cases, these rely on voluntary compliance and are not strictly enforced.
Hospitals support the disaster declaration extension and say that without it they are uncertain whether they are in compliance with federal telemedicine laws.
Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Municipal League of Alaska, said local governments have worked to fill the gaps in the absence of the state declaration.
“Many have had statements expire since they were tied to state ones and they have either been renewed or are now fully expired,” Andreassen said. “Many have had to reconsider their own travel quarantine and testing restrictions. Many are running testing or vaccination clinics with questions about available resources, training and authorities. Some are now rushing to deal with spikes in cases. Many face an uncertain future. In the end, it is this uncertainty that ends up being the most difficult.
A number of Alaskans have also spoken out against the extension.
Juneau’s Kelly Fishler wanted to focus more on the economic needs of Alaskans.
“Extending this declaration further starves our economy by keeping businesses at reduced capacity or empty because no one will patronize them,” Fishler said.
Others testified that they did not believe the state was in an emergency.
Lawmakers approved some amendments. It would be made clear in state law that people can object to getting the COVID-19 vaccine on religious, medical or other grounds. Another would require the consent of a parent or guardian of a minor to be vaccinated.