Vaccines and safety measures hang in the balance as Alaska lawmakers allow COVID-19 response power to expire

Gov. Mike Dunleavy responds to questions at a news conference in the afternoon, before the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration — and the emergency response powers it conferred — expired one minute after midnight. (Alaska Public Media)

When the governor’s COVID-19 disaster declaration expired early Sunday morning, the emergency powers Alaska was using to respond to the pandemic expired with it.

It’s clear many parts of the state’s COVID-19 response will be hampered by the lapse, but the full scope of effects aren’t yet certain.

Members of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration gathered Sunday to lay out some of the changes.

Some 200 regulations that had been suspended will go back into effect, interfering with everything from telemedicine to curbside alcohol pickup to Alaskans aging out of the foster care system, they said.

“We have no mandates,” Dunleavy said. “We have advisories now.”

Vaccine distribution also hangs in the balance. Without the legal authority provided by the emergency declaration, it’s not clear how the state will continue allocating shots.

Director of Public Health Heidi Hedberg said the state’s disaster declaration — and the plan it submitted to the federal government — gave it the legal authority it needed to send vaccines across Alaska. 

With the declaration expiring, officials don’t know if the state still has that authority. 

“Given this, we feel like we will be able to continue distributing vaccines to Alaskans at least through the end of March,” Hedberg said. 

There is no plan for how to legally distribute vaccines after March, and Hedberg said the state’s response to community requests may be slower. 

Travel rules will also change. With the expiration, Alaska residents and non-residents traveling to the state are no longer required to get a pre-travel COVID-19 test, or to test on arrival. 

“If you wish to get on a plane at the airport without a test, you can do that,” Dunleavy said.

The state still advises, but does not require, travelers to get tested, and the option will still be open in airports through June. 

But that doesn’t mean people can travel throughout the state freely without being tested. Some cities, such as Juneau, are still requiring travelers be tested. 

Dunleavy said Alaskans should keep an eye on federal rules as well, like the new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandating masks in all public transport spaces such as planes, ferries, buses and taxis. The state still recommends people get COVID-19 tests before traveling to locations off the road system and the marine highway system.

Dunleavy’s administration has also laid out a COVID-19 transition plan that the governor characterized as moving Alaska toward normalcy. 

Over the next several weeks, commissioners will review response policies and earmark what can lapse and what needs to stay in place, Dunleavy said. The governor’s office will have the final say.

“We believe we can navigate through this process without a declaration,” Dunleavy said. 

The state did issue four new health advisories, some based on previous orders.  

Despite the uncertainty, Dunleavy said he believes the worst of the pandemic is behind Alaska. 

“This is a new beginning for Alaska, this is a new day for Alaska and we’re optimistic that we can continue to manage this well,” Dunleavy said. 

You can watch the administration’s full news conference here.