Gov. Dunleavy extends Alaska’s emergency declaration, health officials want him to do more

A white man in a blue zipper jacket sits at a table and speaks
Gov. Mike Dunleavy (Official Dunleavy Photo)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a new COVID-19 disaster declaration on Friday, nine days before the declaration he issued in March was set to expire. The new declaration will start on Nov. 16 and will last 30 days.

“Given the rise in cases, and given the uncertainty over the next two to three months, I’m asking (to) and I will extend this declaration,” he said on Friday evening.

Hospital executives urgently called for an extension of the declaration in a news conference earlier on Friday. They said that the declaration makes it possible for federal hospital rules to be waived, allowing them to respond to the pandemic.

Anchorage Republican Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, had asked the governor to call the Legislature into a special session to extend the disaster declaration. State law requires that the Legislature votes on whether declarations will last more than 30 days.

After Dunleavy’s announcement, Giessel released a statement saying the Legislature could meet before Nov. 15.

“It’s concerning to me that the governor has chosen this far more arbitrary and tenuous course of action,” she said.

She added that a new declaration puts health care providers, businesses and all Alaskans in an unstable and unpredictable position, because the action is challenged in court.

Dunleavy said that he would work with the Legislature on whether to hold a special session that would extend the declaration longer.

The governor also urged Alaskans to change their behavior — including asking businesses to require wearing masks — to slow the recent rapid growth of the disease in the state.

Dunleavy said if Alaskans don’t change their behavior and case rates remain high, hospitals would be overwhelmed. He listed other consequences:

“That our hospital workers will get sick. Not ‘may,’ they will — some are now. That our military will get sick. They are now. That our police will get sick,” he said. “I’m not saying this to scare you, I just want us all to work together a little bit, readjust how we do things, so that we can get through the next two months.”

He expressed hope that a vaccine will be available in two to three months.

Other examples of behavior changes the governor urged included asking people to not gather in groups of more than 20 in indoor spaces.

But while he said he believes masks are effective, he rejected calls from the medical community for a statewide mask mandate.

He noted that some states with mask mandates, like Illinois, continue to experience widespread transmission of the virus.

“It’s not the cure-all,” Dunleavy said. “It’s not going to ramp down this virus in and of itself. If that were the case, it would be happening in these places that have mask mandates,” he said.

Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association Jared Kosin said in a press conference earlier in the day that hospitalizations are increasing rapidly.

“Let me be clear today: At this rate, Alaska’s hospitals are headed for crisis,” he said, later adding that hospitals “won’t make it through this [increase] unless we change our actions.”

Six hospital CEOs joined Kosin in asking for the declaration to be extended.

“With rates this high, if we do not break the cycle of transmission, we have modeling that indicates — from Dr. Tom Hennessy at the University of Alaska Anchorage — we will overrun our health care capacity before the end of November,” said Dan Winkelman, president and CEO of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

Winkelman said the current COVID-19 surge is like an earthquake that’s already happened, and the Y-K region knows a tsunami is coming. He said implementing public health strategies now will reduce the size of the wave.

“None of us here want to get into having full hospitals two months from now, around Christmastime, and rationing care,” he said. “We do not want to get into that position, and that’s the way we’re going.”

Shelley Ebenal is the CEO of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital parent Foundation Health Partners. She said her organization has so much staff out due to COVID-19 infection or exposure that it’s requiring its night shift staying into the day to keep the hospital staffed.

Providence St. Joseph Health Alaska CEO Preston Simmons said Providence has been seeing up to 100 staff member unable to work daily due to COVID-19 exposure. And due to nationwide pressure on traveling nurses and other healthcare workers, Simmons said Providence has limited ability to bring in staff. He said the declaration allows for more telehealth and flexibility in licensing staff members.

Simmons added that businesses would benefit from the reduced transmission of the disease from universal mask compliance.

Alaska Native Medical Center Interim CEO Dr. Bob Onders said the state could have done more to prevent the spread of the virus into rural Alaska.

“Knowing that as the cases rose in the road system, it was coming to rural Alaska, and it was unfortunate that we didn’t do something to stop from occurring, because what we will see is what we’re seeing now — is the elevation and escalation of hospitalized patients, ICU patients and deaths,” Onders said.

He said a statewide mask mandate is needed, and that a patchwork of local rules doesn’t work due to the virus’ contagiousness.

Central Peninsula Hospital CEO Rick Davis described the state and localities shifting responsibility for mandating masks back and forth as a “hot potato.”

And Maniilaq Association President and CEO Tim Gilbert said rural residents lose when urban Alaskans choose not to wear masks.

“It sends definitely the wrong message, but more importantly, it puts more people at risk, so I think consistency between rural and urban in terms of just the fundamental policy of a mask seems critical to me,” he said.

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