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‘Headed for a crisis’: Alaska’s hospitals urge governor to require masks, extend emergency declaration

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Update, 6:30 p.m.: On Friday evening, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he will issue a new 30-day disaster declaration at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 16 as the existing declaration expires. We’ve posted a new story.

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Original story: A half-dozen hospital CEOs around Alaska are urging Gov. Mike Dunleavy to extend the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration and implement a statewide mask requirement amid alarming hospitalization rates.

The declaration, which triggers scores of federal waivers, expires Nov. 15. New legislation is needed to extend it, but state lawmakers said earlier this week that they lack the votes to call a special session.

The governor is expected to announce later Friday whether he will force lawmakers into session or unilaterally issue a new 30-day disaster declaration.

Separately from the discussions surrounding the disaster declaration, two of the state’s largest medical organizations also urged the governor to require masks.

The twin campaigns follow more than a month of accelerating coronavirus case counts and record numbers of people hospitalized with the virus including a new wave of patients in smaller rural hospitals. Other states with similar trends experienced a spike in deaths.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association took the precedent-setting step of gathering six hospital CEOs from Anchorage, Bethel, Kotzebue, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula because it’s crucial the governor extend the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration as soon as possible, association president and CEO Jared Kosin said during a Friday briefing.

Among other things, the disaster declaration gives hospitals the authority to practice telemedicine, do off-site testing, expedite licensing for essential personnel, and operate alternate care centers for COVID-19 patients.

As of this week, every state in the country falls under an active COVID-19 emergency declaration. Local officials have said they heard indications Dunleavy might not extend Alaska’s declaration.

More recently, the governor asked legislators to call a special session, but Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, responded that they do not have the votes to do so. Both said they want to see the governor call a special session himself.

State law allows the governor to issue a disaster declaration of up to 30 days, and they believe that if the governor attempts to declare a new coronavirus disaster rather than extending the existing declaration, he could incite a lawsuit.

“If this disaster declaration turns into some kind of arm wrestle and legal question, it can cause chaos. We don’t need that right now,” Giessel said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage and House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, joined Edgmon and Giessel in a conversation with Dunleavy Friday afternoon.

The governor said he has not decided what option to take, Edgmon and Begich said afterward.

In a joint statement after the meeting, Begich, Edgmon and Giessel reiterated their support for a special session called by the governor.

“Convening the Legislature and promptly passing a bill gives the disaster declaration strong legal standing and lets the state focus on the ongoing public health and economic emergency," they said in a joint statement.

Kosin said the method of extension matters less to hospitals than the extension itself.

The declaration is essential to managing a deteriorating public-health situation, Kosin said. Alaska this week set a new record with more than 95 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 30 COVID-positive patients in the ICU.

“Close to half these patients are being cared for in hospitals outside of Anchorage. Let me be clear: Today, at this rate, Alaska’s hospitals are headed for a crisis,” he said. “If there is no emergency declaration in place after Nov. 15, our ability to provide health care will be utterly compromised.”

Several hospital CEOs said their facilities are making use of alternative care sites now.

Alaska Native Medical Center has 10 patients in that status, interim CEO Dr. Bob Onders said during the briefing. The hospital saw its COVID-19 patients double from Wednesday to Thursday, Onders said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a need to open the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage for patients. (Health officials have said that staffing constrictions could pose a serious challenge in opening up that alternate site to offer even a moderate level of care.) Central Peninsula Hospital has prepared an old obstetric unit to house COVID-19 patients, according to CEO Rick Davis.

Preston Simmons, CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health Alaska, credited the emergency declaration with authorizing home monitoring programs for COVID-19 patients utilized by more than 335 people in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward, Valdez and Kodiak and soon to start in Mat-Su.

The hospital now has 80 to 100 staff out every day due to community COVID-19 exposure, Simmons said. “Now is definitely not the time to create uncertainty,” he said.

Several of the CEOs expressed direct support for a statewide mask mandate, something Dunleavy has repeatedly said he doesn’t plan to do, deferring instead to local governments despite the lack of clear public-health authority for some.

“What we need is a statewide universal mask mandate,” said Dan Winkelman, president and CEO of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. “The political calculus of this decision is really unfortunate but why we’re having this session with you all today is because we need these ... to be implemented on a statewide basis. We need them now.”

No state officials participated in the briefing, but Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum was listening in.

Separately, the Alaska Medical Association and Alaska Public Health Association on Friday issued a statement urging the governor to extend the declaration and implement a mask mandate.

Alaska’s current rate of new cases over a 7-day average is almost double the national average and is the 12th highest in the nation, according to the public health association, which represents about 170 members statewide.

“Alaska’s public health and health care system are strained under increasing case counts. We are quickly losing our ability to rapidly test, report, contact trace, isolate cases and quarantine contacts,” Dr. Travis Hedwig, association president, said in a statement.

Correction: Central Peninsula Hospital has prepared an old obstetric unit to hold COVID-19 patients. It is not actively using that unit to hold them.

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