‘You can’t bubble the Legislature’: How Alaska lawmakers and capital city are coping with COVID-19

wo testers sit at a table waitig for ptients
Staff of the state Legislature line up for screening on Jan. 20, 2021, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

There are more than 130 legislators and staff in Juneau for the legislative session. And the Legislature is taking steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.

For instance, the Capitol building is closed to the public. And the Legislature has a $1.5 million contract with a company to test and screen everyone who is allowed in the building. 

But there’s still a risk to having so many people working out of the same building in downtown Juneau. 

Over the weekend, Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl sat down for his COVID-19 test in a building just across the street from the state Capitol. It’s invasive: The nasal swab makes him grimace and his eyes water. But, he said, it’s necessary to keep the Legislature functioning.

“You can’t bubble the Legislature. There’s no dorms. You can’t keep folks from going to restaurants or seeing family here in town, and there are legislators who go home to their districts occasionally. So the responsible thing — to put legislators together so we can talk face to face in the same room —  is to just test constantly,” he said. 

Sen. Jesse Kiehl gets a COVID-19 test on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Regular testing and daily screening is a requirement for working the state capitol this session. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Sen. Jesse Kiehl gets a COVID-19 test on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Juneau. Regular testing and daily screening is a requirement for working the state Capitol this session. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

So, every few days, Kiehl goes in for a test. At the beginning of the session, this is something everyone was obligated to do every 72 hours. Now, they’ve moved to a 5-day testing cycle. 

It takes about 15 minutes, and Kiehl gets his negative test result. Each day he walks into the Capitol, he has to answer a few questions about how he’s feeling and if he’s been exposed to anyone who has COVID-19. He shows the screeners his negative test. They take his temperature, and if he doesn’t have a fever, he’s good to go until the next day, when he has to do it all over again. 

But even with all of that preparation in place, it’s not likely they’ll be able to keep COVID-19 completely out of the Capitol building. Kiehl said no one is operating under that illusion.

“At some point, there’s going to be a positive, and they’re very quick on the contact tracing so you can isolate that and keep cases from becoming outbreaks,” he said.

Beacon, the Alaska-based company doing all of the testing and screening, is also tasked with caring for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. They’re supposed to arrange transportation for the person — either to their own home or maybe a local hotel room. Then they check in on the person a few times a day until they’re COVID-free. 

That positive case is also supposed to trigger a phone tree. Beacon informs the person they’ve tested positive. Then the company informs staff at the Legislature. The company also must inform the state. Then the state calls the city. 

City Emergency Manager Robert Barr said it should be a relatively fast process. But this is all new territory. 

“So, we don’t know exactly how that’s going to go yet but that’s how we think it’s going to go. And there’s a person at public health assigned to liaise directly with the Legislature,” he said.

Barr said it’s not really Juneau’s role to track which employers in town have outbreaks unless something goes wrong and the city needs to step in. Instead, he said, Juneau has taken on a role of being a back-up in case Beacon needs help. 

“You know, maybe they need some rapid testing, and they don’t have the kits, or they don’t have the people, or something like that. That’s the kind of thing that they’ll reach out to us directly and we’ll just provide that support in an immediate sort of way,” he said.

Further complicating the issue is that there are supposed to be penalties for things like refusing to wear a mask in the building. But according to Legislative Affairs, it’s not clear who’s responsible for enforcing those rules among legislators. 

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