Alaska News

U.S. health secretary meets in Anchorage with tribal health leaders and Alaska congressional delegation

The nation’s top health official spoke highly of Alaska’s pandemic response during a brief visit to Anchorage on Wednesday.

Alaska has “much to be proud of in how you’ve responded to COVID-19,” said Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at an afternoon news conference, citing the fact that the state is currently “number one” in tests completed per capita.

Azar stopped in Alaska on his way home from a visit to Taiwan. He spent the day visiting with tribal health groups and leaders to discuss local responses to the COVID-19 health crisis, and also conferred with the state’s congregational delegation.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during the news conference that she appreciated Azar’s visit, and the opportunity for him to “appreciate how the logistics are further challenged in a state like Alaska,” she said, “where our distance does create additional challenges.”

Being able to get enough testing supplies and personal protective equipment to remote parts of the state, develop safety protocols for fisheries, and make sure Alaskans have access to clean water are some of the state’s biggest pandemic-related challenges, she told him.

“We know that in a time when we are focused on our response to health care, it is a pretty basic message: wash your hands, keep yourself clean. But in many parts of the state, that is oftentimes a near impossibility,” she said.

She said she hoped Azar would “remain responsive” to the state’s continued needs and challenges, particularly in rural parts of the state.

Azar made news last month for issuing an order that required hospitals to send their data about virus cases to a centralized database in Washington rather than continuing to report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The New York Times reported Wednesday that 34 doctors, nurses and public officials have signed a letter rebuking this action by Azar, and warning that the new coronavirus database will have “serious consequences on data integrity.”

When asked to explain the change in hospital data reporting at the briefing on Wednesday, Azar said there were “many misconceptions” about the new reporting system, and that it was in fact implemented to allow for “more real time, more accurate, more complete” data.

The old reporting system that the CDC had been using “had been originally created to track antibody resistance,” and “wasn’t built for a public health response,” he said.

The data remains “transparent,” he said.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.