Alaska News

Even as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rise, continuing Alaska’s disaster declaration isn’t a sure thing

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Alaska’s emergency COVID-19 declaration expires in mid-November, and the office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy says it’s not clear whether he’ll extend it.

Dunleavy signed the state emergency public health disaster declaration on March 11, and it was extended in May through Senate Bill 241.

It’s set to expire Nov. 15.

As of this week, all 50 states have active COVID-19 emergency declarations in place. More than 30 have extended their orders this fall, according to a tracker provided by the National Governors Association.

Generally, the declarations create special powers to respond to the virus, help cut through federal bureaucracy and provide a framework for state and local health mandates.

Asked if the governor plans to extend the declaration, Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner on Tuesday emailed a one-sentence statement: “The governor is taking into consideration all options when it comes to the emergency declaration and he will make a decision by November 15.”

Asked twice how the state would benefit from allowing the declaration to expire, Turner answered, “I appreciate the question but it is speculative and we do not engage in that.”

Dunleavy at a briefing Wednesday evening said he expected to make a decision about the declaration next week.

Like other states and countries around the world, Alaska is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases as people move indoors with colder weather.

The state shifted from dozens of new cases a day in March to several hundred now, with a record 526 new positive tests reported Sunday and triple-digit new counts for over a month. The number of people currently hospitalized with the virus recently hit a new record as well.

The lack of certainty from the Dunleavy administration is prompting a flurry of concern among some local governments and state lawmakers, as well as the group that represents all of Alaska’s hospitals and nursing homes.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association last week sent Dunleavy a letter and a 41-page federal document urging the governor to extend the declaration.

“The last thing anyone wants when delivering health-care during a pandemic is more uncertainty,” association president and CEO Jared Kosin said Tuesday.

The loss of the declaration could jeopardize at least 20 federal waivers for delivering health care that facilitate crucial services right now, including telemedicine, expedited licensing for providers and approval to treat patients at alternative care sites like Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center, Kosin said. At issue: whether Alaska would continue to meet a federal requirement for use of waivers if there’s no longer a formal state emergency.

“We just don’t know if they’re going to be valid anymore without the declaration,” he said, adding that the same question exists for future CARES Act funding eligibility.

Letting the declaration expire could also send a signal to the public that “an otherwise active pandemic” is over, Kosin said.

“Simply put, we cannot let our guard down now even though we are all exhausted from the pandemic,” the association’s executive committee wrote in a letter sent to the governor last week. “If anything, rising case counts and hospitalizations tell us that even greater challenges lie ahead.”

Some, thought not all, of the 165 cities and boroughs represented by the Alaska Municipal League are also expressing serious concerns, according to executive director Nils Andreassen, who signed a letter sent last week to Dunleavy requesting a declaration.

“Governor, we hope that legislative leaders will reinforce this message to you and take this up on their own as well – navigating through a public health emergency and economic crisis without an emergency declaration in place may be calamitous,” the letter says. “Local governments cannot do this on their own, nor should they.”

Most local emergency declarations “reference and are tied to” the state’s declaration, and most leverage state health mandates in the provision of their own, the letter says. But more than half the state falls under second-class governments that lack the authority to enact local mitigation measures, as well as unincorporated communities and unorganized areas without local governments at all.

“The ability to coordinate activities with the State, to work effectively across layers of government, and to respond quickly without wading through a regulatory morass – this is lost if that declaration expires,” the letter states.

There are some municipalities, however, that don’t support the state declaration over concerns about continued limitations, Andreassen said.

“There’s a sense that the mandates or the declaration represent a restriction on Alaska’s economy," he said.

Several local government officials this week said they could still enact their own emergency restrictions, though it would take time and effort to rework them.

Fifteen out of 23 members of the state House Majority, none of them Republicans, on Tuesday sent Dunleavy a letter saying they are “gravely concerned” about the increased cases, calling them a “call to action.”

The declaration “has allowed for more effective coordination and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving the state and local governments, as well as healthcare workers, critical tools to cut through red tape,” the members said in a press release Tuesday.

“If there was ever a time that Alaskans needed their Governor to lead it is now," the letter states. "Alaskans are looking to you to lead.”

Officials on the Kenai Peninsula say the governor mentioned the declaration during a call last week.

But while one, Homer Mayor Ken Castner, said he heard the governor say he planned to let the declaration expire, others including Kenai city manager Paul Ostrander said they did not hear anything so definitive.

Ostrander said he specifically asked the governor about the fate of the declaration because the city’s return-to-work policy for traveling employees hinges on a state travel mandate, and officials would need to craft a new one if the state’s is expiring. When he didn’t hear a direct answer, Ostrander said, he asked the governor again if he planned to extend the declaration.

“He said they were still making that decision,” he said.

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