Dunleavy administration ‘strongly advises’ against non-essential air travel as pressure builds

A screenshot of the emergency room doctors’ opinion piece from Thursday on the Anchorage Daily News’ website.

First, on Thursday, the state’s emergency room directors published a plea in Alaska’s largest newspaper: Close down airports to non-essential air travel from Outside.

A day later, more requests piled up: First, the Ketchikan borough’s mayor, Rodney Dial, wrote to Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday and asked him to consider restricting non-essential travel into “isolated communities such as Ketchikan.” Then, Juneau’s mayor, Beth Weldon, released her own letter with a similar request.

Late Friday afternoon, Dunleavy’s administration released a response: a “strong advisory” that Alaskans “cease non-essential out of state personal, business, and medical travel now.” It’s also strongly advising against non-essential, long-distance travel inside the state.

“It is imperative that Alaskans heed these guidelines,” said the recommendations, from Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink and Health Commissioner Adam Crum. They cited the fact that more than 80% of proven cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have come from Outside.

The doctors had asked for a stronger step: fully restricting out-of-state, non-essential travel. The goal is to stop bringing cases from Outside. And it gives more time to hospitals to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic — and to allow the disease to die down in Seattle, where hospitals typically serve as an important relief valve for Alaska providers.

For Nathan Peimann, an emergency room doctor in Juneau, an experience he had at work in the past few days demonstrated the importance of such a shutdown.

One of his patients needed a higher level of care than was available at the Juneau hospital. But the weather in Anchorage was too bad to fly there.

“And when I called Seattle to get acceptance for this patient’s care, I was told, essentially, that this patient couldn’t come there,” Peimann said.

Because Seattle’s hospitals are facing a shortage of beds amid one of the country’s largest outbreaks of the coronavirus, Piemann’s patient needed to be screened for the disease it causes before they could be flown to Washington. But Peimann didn’t have a way to do that quickly.

“It was scary for the entire care team at that moment,” he said. “What we realized is that the patient’s needs were being trumped by a question no one could answer. And that’s never happened before, to me.”

Experiences like that are what prompted Peimann to co-sign the letter, published online Thursday in the Anchorage Daily News. It asks state leaders to shut down non-critical air travel from out-of-state, arguing that Alaska needs to stop importing new cases into the state from other places.

“Most of the cases we’re seeing here in Alaska are coming from from down south,” said Lindy Jones, the Juneau hospital’s medical director and another doctor who signed the letter. “The thought is that if we could put a halt to non-essential travel, that we could prevent cases from coming into Alaska, where it’s much more difficult to deal with them.”

The Alaska chapter of the American College of Emergency Medicine has been talking weekly with hospital medical directors since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and the letter grew out of those meetings.

Peimann, the president of the chapter, said the travel limitations they’re pushing for wouldn’t be long-term — more like two or three weeks, to allow hospitals to better prepare, and to allow Seattle to get through the worst of its local outbreak.

At least one Alaska airport is already doing voluntary screening for passengers arriving from out-of-state: Starting Thursday, people arriving in Juneau could ask for a temperature check.

Officials at Anchorage’s state-run international airport, the main hub for travel into and out of the state, didn’t immediately respond to a question about screening measures in place there. But in a press release late Friday, the state transportation department said that passengers are being asked to self-screen for coronavirus symptoms.

“The department recognizes community concerns related to the potential spread of the COVID-19 disease due to passenger activity, and at the same time, the need for continued community access across the state,” the release said.

The release added that “things continue to change,” and it said the department has received reports of 60% fewer passengers flying, compared to the same time last year.