As the state reopens, health care and labor leaders express concern about worker safety

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, speaks during a House floor session in the Capitol in Juneau on March 16. Zulkosky said on Wednesday that she’s seen Alaskans have a false sense of security as the state eases health mandates. She spoke during a joint meeting of the House State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Lawmakers met on Wednesday to hear from health care providers and labor leaders about their concerns as workplaces in Alaska reopen.

Andy Elsberg is an emergency department doctor at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. He told a joint meeting of the House State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees that the state should be doing more to require businesses and individuals to follow health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

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He said that a shutdown isn’t necessary if Alaskans follow guidelines. 

“Businesses should be required to have patrons and employees masked any time social distancing isn’t possible,” he said.

He said the state must ensure that if it drops the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers that it has rapid testing for everyone entering the state. He also says the quarantine, which currently is scheduled to end next week, hasn’t been well-enforced. 

“Our self-isolation for 14 days is a joke,” he said. “Every passenger who arrives in Alaska should be required to fill out their quarantine plan before they get off the plane. The state and the Muni [Anchorage] need to make this happen, instead of expecting the other party to do it.” 

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said the easing off of state mandates shouldn’t send the message that the virus is less contagious. 

Read more about the coronavirus, politics, culture and the economy in Alaska.

“I’ve just firsthand witnessed a false sense of security with the easing of various health mandates… a sense that somehow we’ve eradicated COVID’s presence in Alaska enough to ease health mandates,” she said.

The committees also heard from state union officials who say they should be included more in state plans for workers. Alaska State Employees Association Executive Director Jake Metcalfe said all workers in state offices should be informed when a worker in an office has a positive test result. And he wants them to be included in future plans. 

“We believe that it is essential that employees have a spot at the table and have a voice in how that is done,” he said. “And that is for the safety of everybody.”

State Division of Personnel and Labor Relations Director Kate Sheehan said the state follows safe practices and notifies those who’ve had close contact with workers who were infected. 

“Our goal is to keep government running, but to keep our employees safe,” she said.

Sheehan said the state wants to collaborate with employees on safety issues.

The committee also heard testimony from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth biologist Erin Bromage, who has studied how large numbers of people can be infected from a single incident. And he cautioned that many people can become infected from a single person in a larger room, depending on the airflow. 

Bromage added that Alaska’s relatively low infection and high test rates are “beyond aspirational” for other states.