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Alaska News

Gov. Dunleavy orders investigation of state health department for ‘unauthorized’ data sharing over municipal COVID-19 vaccine calls to Anchorage seniors

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office is investigating a “potential violation of law” by the state health department for providing data used to help Anchorage seniors get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s not clear specifically what triggered the investigation and which laws may have been violated. Dunleavy’s office would provide no additional details after announcing the investigation.

A news release the governor’s office issued Thursday said Dunleavy has directed the Alaska Department of Law to investigate the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for sharing names and contact information with municipal contractors “through an unauthorized action by staff at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.”

The action occurred outside an established data-sharing agreement between the state and Anchorage Health Department, according to the release.

Anchorage resident Andrée McLeod said she got a call from a municipal contractor last Sunday that raised red flags related to privacy, not vaccines.

McLeod said she was “stunned” to pick up the phone last weekend and find contractor AM TRACE asking if she’d been vaccinated. She said she hung up.

Then she called back to ask how they’d gotten her name and number. A supervisor repeatedly told her the company got its call lists — which apparently contain cellphone numbers — from the Anchorage Health Department.

McLeod reached out to an Anchorage Assembly member to voice her concerns, according to an email she sent Dunleavy and other top state officials on Friday.

In the email, she asked if the state is keeping a list of vaccine recipients, what kind of state lists contain names and phone numbers — and what laws or policies “protect the disclosure of personal, private information of Alaska residents kept by the State of Alaska.”

Anchorage municipal health officials say the contact information was part of an ongoing partnership with the state to encourage residents to get vaccinated.

They said the state health department provided “limited” contact information, which was transmitted securely.

The state “requested that we help the vaccination effort by connecting with seniors in Anchorage who might need assistance signing up for a vaccine appointment,” Chelsea Ward-Waller, spokeswoman for the Anchorage Health Department, said in an email.

The information was used by municipal contractors to make 1,275 calls to Anchorage residents, Ward-Waller said.

“Not everyone wants to get vaccinated, and we have not — and will never — mandate or coerce vaccinations,” she said.

The calls were based on a script that included a response for people who had no interest in getting vaccinated: “Thank you very much for your time and have a nice day.”

Callers who were asked how they got people’s numbers were told to say, “... we got it from the Anchorage Health Department and we are reaching out to support people in Anchorage with getting the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The governor’s decision to order an investigation was first reported by Must Read Alaska, which also reported initial concerns about the contractor’s vaccine calls.

According to the governor’s news release, Dunleavy directed Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum to “conduct an internal review of all the department’s data sharing agreements.” Dunleavy in a statement said the health department “will report back to me with new policies and procedures that will prevent this from happening again.”

Officials from the state Department of Health and Social Services did not respond to several requests for information or interviews and said the Department of Law is handling any information requests during the ongoing investigation.

Maria Bahr, a Department of Law spokeswoman and assistant attorney general appointed this month to serve as a Fairbanks District Court judge, declined to answer any questions Thursday.

“Senior leadership just learned of this, and the Governor wanted to act quickly to let the public know,” Bahr said in an email. “However, that means that our investigation has only just begun and it will take some time to make sure we have accurate information.”

Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said he couldn’t answer any questions due to the ongoing investigation.

Turner and Bahr didn’t answer additional questions about what prompted Dunleavy’s decision.

“As we stated yesterday, we are still investigating exactly what occurred and what may rise to the level of a violation, so there is no further information we can provide at this time,” Bahr said Friday.

Municipal officials pushing for a return to more normal operations by summer say they could lift a new COVID-19 emergency order enacted this week once the city’s health department certifies that 70% of eligible Anchorage residents are fully vaccinated.

As of Friday, 41% of Anchorage residents 16 and older fall into that category.