If Legislature fails to act, Alaska’s vaccine plan and testing mandate face uncertainty

A room with tables and officils sitting around
Members of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee hear details about a bill to extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration on Feb. 2 in the Capitol. Members, from left, are Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, behind the plexiglass; Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; and Adam Crum, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s pandemic disaster declaration expires this weekend, the state will lose its wide range of special powers to respond to COVID-19. Legislative leaders don’t want to hamstring the state’s response to the pandemic, but they face logistical obstacles to a smooth transition.

At stake is everything from planning the distribution of vaccines to requiring COVID-19 testing for air travelers.

Dunleavy has issued four disaster declarations on the COVID-19 public health emergency since March 2020. The most recent is set to expire at midnight Sunday. But his office said he can’t extend it this time without approval from the Legislature.

Alaska state law dictates disaster declarations expire after 30 days, unless the Legislature votes to extend them. Some legislators have expressed concern about the constitutionality of issuing successive orders without Legislative approval. No one has sued to block the extensions. 

RELATED: Hospitals worry about upcoming end to Alaska’s disaster declaration

But now the legislature is back in session for the first time since the pandemic began. And Dunleavy’s administration has filed Senate Bill 56, which includes an extension of the current order. 

Heidi Hedberg, the director of the state Division of Public Health, said the disaster declaration gives the state legal authority to distribute vaccines, as well as some medical treatments for COVID-19. 

“We need the authorities from the public health emergency to allocate to the communities,” she said. “Without that authority, we are in a very precarious situation when the public health emergency expires.”

State government’s authority to prioritize vaccines for at-risk groups would end with the declaration, she said. Communities without health powers will be left behind. 

Consequences of the declaration’s end are still muddy. State health officials are determining exactly what the state can legally do to distribute vaccines without it. Without statewide mandates for testing related to air travel, they anticipate a patchwork of local restrictions. 

But even with the high stakes, there are significant obstacles in the way of passing an extension.

The most immediate: The House can’t consider any legislation right now because it hasn’t organized. It’s split 20-20 between two caucuses. There’s no permanent speaker to refer bills to committees. There are no committees to hear them.

Fairbanks Rep. Steve Thompson is House Republicans’ pick to become speaker. He said the House may have to let the declaration expire, and pass an extension later that could apply retroactively.

“But there is pressure that it needs to be done,” he said Friday. “That’s part of the reasons we were elected to come down here, was to do the state’s work. We have to address things, and that’s one of the items that I think is pretty important to everybody. And that’s another reason that we should get organized and do our work — what we were elected for.”

Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon is a leader in the other House caucus, which includes 15 Democrats, four independents and one Republican. On Tuesday afternoon, he said he and other legislative leaders were working with legal experts to find an alternative to a bill.

They were writing a document Edgmon hopes a majority of House members would sign to support the governor’s ability to extend the disaster. 

“Even if we were organized, at this point, we would be very challenged to get a bill through in time to meet the Feb. 14 deadline,” he said. “So we’re having to look at other avenues. And I think we’re going to be successful, at least to temporarily continue the disaster declaration.”

But the unorganized House is only one obstacle to extension: Some lawmakers just don’t agree with it. They’ve been hearing from constituents opposed to local mask mandates, school closures and restrictions on businesses, who see the end of the state declaration as a step toward returning to normal. 

Anchorage resident Dean Cannon said he opposed extending the declaration at a recent Senate Health and Social Services Committee meeting. 

“The public are losing control over their lives and democracy under these emergency orders,” he said. “And many of us feel too much authority is collecting in unelected bodies.”

Cannon cited the state Department of Health and Social Services as an example. 

And the potential problems extend beyond the state government. 

Along with giving the state specific powers spelled out in law, the declaration frees up hospitals and health care providers to respond, according to Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. He said federal waivers allowing hospitals to adjust emergency room procedures and make other changes to confront pandemic would end without the declaration. 

“If we lose the federal blanket waivers, the consequences will be real, and they will be significant,” he said.

“We have a hospital that constructed temporary walls around a COVID unit, altered entrances and egresses, has power supplies and cords in place,” he said. “All of these would be federal violations without the waivers being in place.”

Sharing hospitals’ concerns about the expiration are health care providers in rural Alaska. Alaska Native Health Board President Verné Boerner noted Alaska Natives make up a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Crowded, multigenerational homes, lack of running water and sanitation, and distance from advanced medical care contribute to the problem, she said. Ending the disaster declaration would add to that list.

“The public health emergency has been critical for helping us respond to and provide care to our members,” Boerner said.

In the meantime, municipal leaders statewide are scrambling to understand the impact on residents if the declaration expires. 

Arguments for extension appear to be having an impact: Despite a majority of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee initially expressing skepticism, the committee voted to move the administration’s bill forward on Tuesday. The committee amended it so the extension would run only through March 15, much shorter than the Sept. 30 deadline the governor wanted. 

Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, wanted to limit the bill’s provisions. 

“We don’t want the people of Alaska thinking that the Senate is not going to support something that requires passage, because those tools are necessary,” he said. “It just may be far more narrow.”

The bill could see a full Senate vote by the end of the week. 

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