Temporary restrictions on health care providers and the services they are allowed to offer will be partially lifted next week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday, providing new details on a step he previously announced.
The text of a written health mandate said restrictions on non-urgent medical procedures will be further relaxed in May.
Under the changes, “you can go back and see your doctor. You can go back and see your physical therapist,” the governor said.
If Alaska continues to limit the spread of COVID-19, Dunleavy said he expects more restrictions to be relaxed, and Alaskans can “reopen the life we’re used to and the life we want to get back to.”
He said other sectors to open up next could include state fisheries and retail stores.
The first phase of the changes under the new health mandate allows health care providers — an extensive list including doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, physical therapists, psychologists and veterinarians, among others — to perform services that require minimal personal protective equipment, starting Monday. Some providers had been barred from working under a previous health mandate that required the operation of businesses where people come into close contact to temporarily cease.
“Every effort should continue to be made to deliver care without being in the same physical space, such as utilizing telehealth, phone consultation, and physical barriers between providers and patients,” the mandate states.
Under the portion of the new mandate that takes effect Monday, patients who will undergo urgent procedures that involve an elevated risk of exposure, like dental work or deliveries, should be tested for COVID-19 first “to the extent that is reasonably possible.”
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Wednesday that the municipality is reducing its own restrictions in parallel with the state. He and the governor said separately that officials will keep a close eye on the spread of coronavirus in Alaska, and if the virus surges, restrictions may return.
“If we let our guard down, then the virus is still lurking out there and it can wreak the kind of devastation that we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” Berkowitz said.
To avoid that resurgence, the new mandate calls for greater COVID-19 testing and screening among patients seeking treatment for any condition, and “universal masking procedures” for medical workers.
The next phase of changes under the new health mandate says that non-urgent elective procedures that can’t be postponed for longer than eight weeks without significantly affecting a patient’s quality of life can resume May 4 if certain conditions are met. Those conditions include a negative COVID-19 test for patients undergoing procedures that pose a greater risk to health care workers, and “exceptional environmental mitigation strategies.” The changes to take effect May 4 also prohibit patients from receiving visitors in most cases.
The governor and mayor, each accompanied by medical officials, said Alaska has successfully reduced the spread of COVID-19, and they no longer believe Alaska’s hospitals are in danger of running out of room or medical equipment.
The restrictions on non-essential procedures have emptied state hospitals so much that many have furloughed workers or restricted their working hours.
“The hospitals are empty,” said Dr. Keri Gardner, chief medical officer of Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.
The lack of elective procedures has also taken a financial toll on the state’s medical providers. The Blood Bank of Alaska, for example, earns more than half its revenue by selling blood products for elective procedures. Without them, it had to seek an emergency bridge loan to keep its doors open.
Alaska Regional Hospital hasn’t escaped the economic consequences, Gardner said.
“It has taken an economic toll on the hospital as well as the people who work here,” she said, explaining that the executives who run the hospital’s parent company have taken pay cuts to compensate workers who have been furloughed.
Dunleavy said financial implications factored into the decision to allow elective procedures.
“Certainly that is entering into the equation, but also the capacity is there as well,” he said, referring to empty hospital beds.
“We need to make sure we can keep our economy intact, and health care," Dunleavy added. "It’s crucial because we can’t lose folks leaving Alaska looking to work elsewhere because, God forbid if this virus takes on a new form or it just grows in magnitude, we need to have as many of our health care practitioners as we have here now, ready to help out if we need to use clinics and if we need to ask staff if they want to be part of mitigation response to an increase in numbers.”
Watching the governor’s briefing Tuesday night, Christy Fleming of Fairbanks cheered when he announced that elective procedures would resume. She’s been waiting to get a dental implant.
“I am relieved! When all this started, I had a couple appointments set up, that kept getting rescheduled, and finally got canceled. I plan to call tomorrow to see when I can get the appointments set up again,” she said in a Facebook message.
“On a very basic level, it’ll be really awesome to be able to actually chew with both sides of my mouth,” she said.
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