Alaskans wait for vital records as state health department gets back online after cyberattack

An indoor room with no windows and stacks of binders.
The vault at Juneau’s Vital Statistics office. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Topol)

It’s been three months since a cyberattack crippled the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ online systems. And for Alaskans who need vital records — like birth, death and marriage certificates — that has put things on hold.

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Stephanie Bucheli’s second son was born at home in July. When her husband went to get the birth certificate, he was told it might take up to two months.

Bucheli and her family needed the birth certificate to get her son a passport. Her whole family is in Peru, and she said her mother is anxious to meet her second grandson while he’s still a baby. She didn’t get to meet Bucheli’s firstborn until he was nearly 4 years old.

“But you know, it was a month, and I didn’t get anything. And I was getting a little bit anxious,” Bucheli said.

A woman sits outside in a t-shirt holding a baby.
Stephanie Bucheli and her newborn son. (Photo courtesy of the family)

Paperwork is taking so long because the state has to fill orders for things like birth certificates and marriage licenses by hand. The cyberattack in May took out the electronic vital records system that made the process as simple as the few clicks it takes to search and print. 

Luckily, Bucheli lives in Juneau, where there is a state records office. She was able to go in and get someone to process the paperwork on the spot. She said it took about 40 minutes. But that’s not an option for everyone in the state.

“I’ve been saying welcome to vital records 1975,” said Rebecca Topol, who heads the state’s Health Analytics and Vital Records section. 

Topol said that instead of searching that electronic database, her staff has to search a literal vault of all the state’s paperwork.

“You know, like the library archives have a big vault, we also have one here for the original records going back to the 1800s,” she said.

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The vault is in Juneau. So if someone was looking for a record anywhere else, the staff in Juneau probably had to search for it. 

The electronic system was back up and running a few weeks ago, but Topol said her team is still mired in a backlog.

“So, we literally do have piles of mail that haven’t been all gone through yet,” she said. “They are processing them in the order that they’re received. So the newest ones would go to the bottom, basically.”

There’s still too much of a backup to turn the online order system back on. 

The state has authorized overtime hours and increased staffing to get the work done, but Topol estimates it could take months before services are back to normal.

RELATED: ‘Sophisticated group’ behind Alaska cyberattack, agency says

People like Bucheli, who can walk into the office, have a chance to get records more quickly. But, even so, when she went to get her son’s passport she was told that there’s a slowdown there too. Federal employees said COVID-19 is to blame for that delay. So she’s still waiting.

And, she said, she can’t help but wonder: “Maybe if I had gotten the verification in a day or so — not in a month — then I wouldn’t have this problem.”

There’s still about two months until her trip. Anything could happen.

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