Alaska is reporting its highest rate of COVID-19 transmission in six months, and hospital executives in the state are warning of a looming crisis as the hyper-contagious delta variant catches fire.
The last time case counts were this high it was mid-winter, Anchorage’s city government mandated mask-wearing in indoor public spaces, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration required visitors to be tested for the virus at Alaska’s airports.
But now that the COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, Alaska’s most powerful elected officials are taking little concrete action to slow the virus’s spread amid this latest spike in cases.
Public health officials in Dunleavy’s administration and in the administration of Anchorage’s new mayor, Dave Bronson, are suggesting measures like increased masking and testing, and being careful about gatherings in indoor spaces — guidance that tracks with new, tighter federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those public health officials are also continuing to plead with Alaskans to get vaccinated, which they say is the best way to protect themselves from becoming seriously ill or hospitalized with COVID-19.
But Dunleavy and Bronson — both conservative Republicans — have not translated those recommendations into new public policy. And both are declining to use the same types of mandates, restrictions and testing requirements that both the city and state used to try to minimize the spread of the virus the last time case counts were this high.
“We are not doing mask mandates,” Bronson said in an interview Tuesday.
“Our job as government is to provide the best information that’s available to everyone in the city, and allow them to make their own decisions between them and their health care provider,” he added. “If we need to make recommendations, we’ll make them. My health department has not come to me with that, yet.”
Bronson administration officials say they’re set to hold a news conference on their response to COVID-19 later Thursday.
Anchorage’s city epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, resigned from her job earlier this week, and Bronson’s health director, David Morgan, told Alaska’s News Source in recent days that he couldn’t say whether the COVID-19 pandemic is still underway.
“It’s a personal view kind of thing. We are not in a state of emergency, and that’s what I go by,” he told the television station. “Pandemic is an adjective that describes a situation.”
Dunleavy, meanwhile, released a statement this week calling on Alaskans to practice what he called “common safety measures” in response to hospitals nearing capacity.
He suggested that Alaskans put out their campfires and wear life jackets, in addition to getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
But he made no mention of new mandates. And his chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said at a public briefing Wednesday that the administration is leaving those decisions to local officials — even as she added that masks are an effective way to stop the virus.
“We are a home-rule state,” Zink said. “So, really, that authority very much resides in local municipalities, tribes and regions.”
A spokesman for Dunleavy did not respond when asked whether the governor was considering new mandates, or why he is not.
In a prepared statement, a spokesman for the state health department, Clinton Bennett, said the agency “is in constant conversation with the governor’s office, the CDC, and federal and local partners, including the hospitals and hospital association, regarding new cases and hospital capacity.”
“We look to partner in any way we can to encourage people to be safe and healthy, to increase hospital capacity, but are asking the public to help as well,” Bennett said.
It’s politically unrealistic to expect either Bronson’s or Dunleavy’s administration to adopt any mandates based on their “signalling,” said Anchorage economist Jonathan King, who’s been closely tracking COVID-19 case counts and writes a newsletter about the pandemic.
But such measures should still be under consideration, King said, given that the science shows mask-wearing and social distancing to reduce case counts.
“I think for a large number of these governments that have some of these powers, it is a missed opportunity,” he said. “And it will result directly in more cases and more hospitalizations.”
Alaska is currently seeing its highest rates of COVID-19 transmission since January, with nearly 400 new cases reported Tuesday.
Eight of the state’s 11 regions are in the “high” alert level as case counts continue rising steeply, according to health department data released Wednesday. And the extra-contagious new delta variant is responsible for nearly all the cases analyzed by public health officials.
COVID-19 patients make up just under 10% of patients at Alaska hospitals, according to the health department.
But with emergency rooms typically busier during the summer even before the pandemic, and many hospitals contending with burned-out workforces, they’re running out of space and staff to take care of new patients, executives said at a news conference this week. Some hospitals are reinstating measures from earlier in the pandemic, like opening COVID-19 wings and canceling non-emergency surgeries.
“This is extremely serious,” Jared Kosin, head of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said at the news conference. “We’re not interested in the political side of this. We are trying to get the message out of what’s going on.”
Health officials say that the nature of the recent spike in cases is different from earlier in the pandemic, when unvaccinated senior citizens and immunocompromised people faced a much higher risk of death from the virus. Now, it’s younger, unvaccinated adults who are ending up in hospitals, executives said.
“The important part is, our most vulnerable are protected and thus, our death rates and hospitalization rates are way down,” Dunleavy said in a podcast interview released this week. “I think what you’re going to see over time is, unfortunately, some folks will get ill, they’ll know some neighbors that got ill or some family members, and that will spur them to get the vaccination.”
In response to the recent spike, some cities in Southeast Alaska have reinstituted mandates.
Sitka, contending with one of its worst outbreaks of the virus, is requiring masks in city buildings. In Wrangell, the Assembly this week voted to require testing for unvaccinated visitors and residents returning to the community.
“I’m not hitting the panic alarm by any stretch of the imagination,” Wrangell’s borough manager, Lisa von Bargen, said at the Assembly’s meeting. “But it’s one tool that allows us to be able to catch positive cases if they’re there.”
In interviews this week, two members of Anchorage’s Assembly suggested that new restrictions could be merited, and one of them, Meg Zaletel, called the current lack of protective measures or restrictions “really alarming.”
“I would definitely like us to take this issue up again, as robustly as we did before the vaccine,” she said.
But any such measures may have to survive a veto by Bronson, which would require eight votes out of the Assembly’s 11 members. And others sounded less open to mandates as Zaletel.
“Now, we have what we have for other diseases: We have very effective vaccines. So, if people are worried, they should get vaccinated. If they’re not, maybe they get sick,” said Assemblyman John Weddleton. “It’s not a level where you would close businesses, and so on. And I can wear masks — it’s not a big deal — but for some people, it is. And you want to avoid that stuff.”
He added: “The world’s different than it was pre-vaccination.”