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Alaska’s governor and Anchorage officials offer mixed messaging amid unprecedented COVID-19 case counts

As Alaska’s COVID-19 daily case counts hit new record highs this week, the state’s governor and emergency officials in its largest city took to different platforms to offer similar, though at times conflicting, messages.

The Municipality of Anchorage early Tuesday afternoon used the Nixle emergency alert network to broadcast an urgent warning — saying “Stay home except for essential trips” and “GATHERINGS ARE NOT SAFE" — and to instruct residents to avoid all but essential trips outside the home in what read like a sort of voluntary hunker-down request.

A few hours later, Gov. Mike Dunleavy posted a Facebook video urging Alaskans to wear masks in public and avoid unnecessary trips and gatherings, though he also said that there’s no need to “hole up" and that the state’s death and hospitalization rates associated with the virus are dropping.

“Nothing is going to replace individuals taking action on their own to protect themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors,” Dunleavy said. “And this includes wearing a mask when you’re in a setting with others. Avoiding contact with others outside of your family if you don’t need to make that contact.

“But I just want to make sure we understand: None of us should be terrified today. None of us should be scared today," Dunleavy continued. "We should be concerned. We should make sure that, again, we take all the precautions necessary to prevent ourselves from getting the virus.”

10/6 COVID-19 Update

As we monitor the anticipated increase in COVID cases, the sacrifices Alaskans have made to build up our hospital capacity was not in vain. We must not live in fear of COVID-19, but should continue to work to reduce the spread.

Posted by Governor Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Within hours of the video’s 5 p.m. launch Tuesday, a political blogger captured a brief video of Dunleavy without a mask covering his face at a Republican Party fundraising event on the Hillside in Anchorage.

‘It doesn’t mean we should hole up somewhere’

The state hit a record high daily case count for residents Monday and has reported triple-digit daily increases for two weeks. But at least so far, Alaska holds the lowest per capita death rate in the country with 59 fatalities associated with the virus, and the number of COVID-19 hospital patients actually declined slightly in recent weeks.

Still, state and local officials say they’re watching the numbers closely as they continue to rise, potentially leading to new infections in older or more medically vulnerable people who could overwhelm the state’s health care system. They say the virus is spreading among friends and family in indoor settings in Anchorage.

Asked if the governor’s video statement contradicted municipal public health messaging, Heather Harris, the director of the Anchorage Health Department, said she couldn’t speak to Dunleavy’s statement or approach.

“What I can say is that here at the Health Department, we really value our partnership and connection with the state and I think we have a lot of consistency between the Anchorage community and our state partners around those three W’s — around wearing a mask, watching our distance and washing our hands," Harris said.

The governor’s Facebook video, which runs just under seven minutes, was planned in advance and taped early Tuesday, according to a spokeswoman.

Dunleavy tells viewers that high case counts don’t come as a surprise, and that while these numbers are up, hospitalization and death rates have declined since the start of the pandemic in March.

The video includes data from the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association that shows the intensive-care capacity at Anchorage hospitals remains steady, as does the number of COVID-positive patients in ICU beds.

Back in March, with less testing and older patients, the state’s mortality rate was 1.6-2.8%, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said during a science briefing Wednesday. Now, with more testing and younger, generally healthier people driving up case counts, the rate has fallen between 0.4 and 0.85%, Zink said.

In the video this week, Dunleavy recommends Alaskans wear a mask “when you’re in a setting with others” and avoid unnecessary contact with people outside their family.

“This virus is not the extinction event we thought it was going to be,” he said, adding that concern is still justified. “But it doesn’t mean we should be scared. It doesn’t mean we should be terrified. It doesn’t mean we should hole up somewhere.”

‘Stay home’

Officials in Anchorage took a different tone, sending a text message that emphasized not just Alaska’s case counts but the national death tally to date: “COVID-19 has killed 210,494 Americans,” the message said. “Cases are surging. COVID-19 could affect you. Take action now to save lives.”

“Stay home except for essential trips,” the municipal alert said.

The message about social events was even stronger: “GATHERINGS ARE NOT SAFE."

Community responses to the alert on social media ranged from people calling the alert ridiculous, fear mongering or “fresh political propagandic horses---” to those who appreciated the intent behind the message, calling it "reasonable and not political.”

The message was jointly sent out by the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management and the Anchorage Health Department via Nixle, the notification system that local departments use to send out targeted alerts to subscribers based on where they live.

People signed up are used to seeing alerts like roads closed by police standoffs, missing children, or traffic accidents shutting down the Glenn Highway during the evening commute. Occasionally, the municipality has also used them to broadcast COVID-19 information.

But Monday’s message had a more dramatic tone.

A steep rise in cases in Anchorage over the past two weeks prompted the department to send out the alert, said Audrey Gray, spokeswoman for the municipal Emergency Operations Center.

The city and the health department have so far used “all the traditional means” to get the word out about what people should do to stop the virus from spreading, but the city’s case numbers suggest that people may not be quite getting the message, Gray said. “And we really don’t have anything to combat the virus with besides people’s behavior."

Nixle seemed like an effective way to reach a lot of people in a short period of time. Nixle alerts generally meet two criteria: They must be urgent, and must lay out specific actions people need to take, Gray said.

“This is just a way to basically tell people, this is now more urgent than it was two weeks ago,” she said. “Don’t go to that gathering for that birthday party you’ve been invited to, wear that face covering, wash your hands often, if you feel sick, stay home,” she said.

The city’s message was echoed in part by the state’s top doctor.

Zink during a science briefing Wednesday urged people in “red alert” communities with daily case rates over a 14-day average of 10 per 100,000 residents — Anchorage was at almost 25 Wednesday, Fairbanks at almost 29 and the Northwest region at 35 — to be more cautious than ever about interacting with others.

“Cancel the dinner party, indoor or outdoor, even if they’re with your bubble or small group of friends,” she said. “It’s the time to not carpool, it’s the time to make sure your kids are not having sleepovers.”

The video showing Dunleavy not wearing a mask at an indoor fundraiser was filmed by Suzanne Downing of Must Read Alaska, a former Republican Party communications director, who livestreamed herself walking into the event on Tuesday. Another political blogger, Jeff Landfield, posted the clip to Twitter on Tuesday evening, saying the original video was quickly removed after it was posted.

The video captured Dunleavy, standing under an arch with a face covering around his neck, posing for a photo next to an unidentified woman, also not wearing a mask. The governor rapidly gestured at Downing to stop filming and she panned away.

“Yeah,” she can be heard saying. “We have press here. They want me to turn my camera off. So that, I will do.”

Downing declined to comment when contacted about the video Wednesday.

The governor’s office declined to respond when asked about the video on Wednesday.

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