Some Alaskans are refusing to quarantine because they won’t get paid if they don’t work

SEARHC personnel test a colleague for COVID-19 at the employee screening tent behind the hospital on April 28, 2020. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

Some Alaskans who’ve had close contact with people with COVID-19 are refusing to quarantine because they won’t get paid if they don’t go to work, according to state and local public health leaders who said they’re concerned.

Anchorage Environmental Health Services Division Manager Christy Lawton told legislators on Tuesday that residents’ financial needs are also affecting their willingness to get tested.

“Because not knowing is better in their minds,” she said, “because they don’t have to reveal they’re positive and potentially be told not to come to work, particularly for many in our community that don’t have job where they’re going to get paid if they don’t show up, or they’re not able to telecommute.”

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At a House Health and Social Services Committee meeting, Lawton said the issue is occurring at a time when contact tracing is more difficult. Coronavirus cases are surging across the state. Alaska has reported 200 or more new coronavirus infections for the past six days, and at least 100 new cases over the past four weeks.

“With the widespread community spread that’s happening now,” Lawton said, “I think contact tracing efforts are just harder because it’s so insidious and so vast.”

RELATED: “Dramatic surge” of COVID-19 in Yukon-Kuskokwim region: 78 cases reported in one day

Lawton encouraged legislators to find ways to provide economic incentives to people to comply with health mandates and to advocate for financial support at all levels of government. 

State officials said in a news briefing on Wednesday that isolation for people with the virus — and quarantine for the people they’ve been in close contact with — is difficult for multiple reasons. 

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the coronavirus’s long incubation period makes it challenging. It can take between two and 14 days for a person with the virus to show symptoms. 

“It’s hard for families. It’s hard for workers. It’s hard for kids,” she said.

Zink said all public health workers can do is provide people with data about the disease and ask for them to isolate and quarantine.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said job-related pressures are one of several reasons why people don’t want to comply with contact tracing, along with issues related to schooling and general fatigue with responding to COVID-19. But, he said, contact-tracing is one of the state’s most important tools to slow the spread of the virus. 

“We’re seeing a number of people who are not interested in participating in contact tracing,” McLaughlin said. “My nursing staff frequently reports getting hung up on by people that they’re trying to notify.” 

McLaughlin added that people who test positive should inform their own close contacts.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he recently became aware of the issue of Alaskans not complying with contact tracing due to work pressures. He said his office will be looking at how widespread and problematic the issue is, and will examine whether there’s anything the state can do to address it. 

One of the first federal laws enacted in response to the epidemic in March — the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — requires some employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave to people who must quarantine as a result of the pandemic. But the law doesn’t cover all workers. And it expires at the end of this year. 

Dunleavy took questions from reporters in a news briefing on Wednesday for the first time since Sept. 1