As COVID-19 cases spike in Anchorage, driven largely by the more contagious delta variant, Mayor Dave Bronson on Thursday reiterated that he will not require masks in the city or implement any precautions such as capacity restrictions.
“I’m not here to compel people to wear masks or get vaccinated,” Bronson said. “My focus as a government leader is to provide the absolute best information that’s available.”
The city is seeing its largest surge in hospitalizations since January. Most regions of Alaska, including Anchorage, are at the highest alert level for coronavirus risk.
Speaking with reporters Thursday, Bronson emphasized personal choice when it comes to COVID-19 precautions. He said rather than enacting COVID-19 restrictions and mandates, the city is there to provide information, testing and vaccinations to people who want them.
Members of his administration also made statements that contrasted with a warning this week from Alaska hospital administrators about threatened hospital capacity if current COVID-19 trends continue.
Bronson also again called the coronavirus vaccine “experimental,” and said he will not get one now.
Bronson also deferred to the Anchorage Health Department’s new chief medical officer, Dr. Michael Savitt, on information about COVID-19 precautions and vaccinations. Savitt emphasized the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines.
Bronson introduced Savitt on Thursday.
“I’m fulfilling my duty to the public by providing the best information available. And I do that by hiring the right people,” Bronson said.
Savitt, a pediatrician, will be “filling the gap” until the department hires a new epidemiologist, according to a written statement from the health department. Former health department epidemiologist Janet Johnston announced her immediate resignation earlier this week.
Savitt said the vaccines work well and are “safe, by and large.”
“Please, if you’re not vaccinated, get information, get educated, get informed, and you will decide for yourselves whether you need a vaccination or not,” Savitt said. “I urge you, if you want to protect yourself, your family and friends, the vaccination is the most important tool we have right now.”
Bronson, who last year fell ill with the virus, said he is not vaccinated and has “no intention of getting the vaccine.”
“In the airplane world, for example, you never fly the A-model of anything,” said Bronson, a retired military and commercial pilot. “My thing is, if somebody wants to get vaccinated, I’m going to you know, I’m going to have them defer to the doctor. I may take the vaccine. I’m not saying I’m never going to take it. I’m very much pro-vaccine in general. I’ve got lots of them.”
Bronson’s approach to COVID-19 is a stark contrast from previous administrations of former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, who enacted mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions such as capacity restrictions during previous spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
Bronson when campaigning for mayor also made a series of statements downplaying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Anchorage and rejecting the advice of public health experts who urged caution at the time, saying at one point, “This pandemic — if there was a pandemic — was over last summer.” Bronson later walked back that statement, saying he “misspoke” by using the word “if” and that, by its definition, there “was a pandemic, certainly.”
When asked Thursday whether he would consider encouraging Anchorage residents to wear masks, Bronson said that the policy of his administration is to follow the guidance of Savitt.
Savitt said that people who are vaccinated “probably don’t need to wear a mask as much as if you are not vaccinated.”
“Continue to use a mask if you’re unvaccinated. If you are vaccinated, and you’re in a situation where you should be wearing it, protect yourself — wear a mask. If you’re unsure, and you just want to wear a mask, wear a mask, no one’s going to stop you from wearing a mask. Hand washing — very important. Social distancing should be maintained whenever possible,” Savitt said.
The CDC on Tuesday revised its guidance on masks, saying that people who live where coronavirus transmission is substantial or high should wear masks when they are indoors in public places, even if they are vaccinated. State public health officials have also encouraged fully vaccinated Alaskans to wear masks in places with high COVID-19 rates such as Anchorage.
Savitt on Thursday said that the current COVID-19 situation is different from last year because there is now more information about treatments along with vaccines to protect against the virus.
He said that the situation is “in all likelihood not going to be as severe as it was a year ago.”
“The hospitals in Anchorage are preparing for this. They know how to assign bed capacity, keep them in reserve for an influx of patients. It’s important to realize that intensive care units run almost at full capacity all year long — long before COVID came around,” Savitt said. “So they know how to handle, they know how to plan for this.”
Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association president and CEO Jared Kosin on Tuesday called the state’s health care system fragile in comparison to last winter, when the pandemic peaked. He also said that hospitals have less room, less staff and a burned-out workforce.
“We trust and listen to the hospital operators who are actually on the ground and have been for the last year and a half,” Kosin said on Thursday, following Bronson’s remarks.
City manager Amy Demboski said the administration is “committed to adequately responding to the COVID pandemic, whatever that looks like.”
The city’s efforts include continued COVID-19 testing and vaccinations and engaging in an “education campaign,” she said.
“We want to make sure that if people want to be tested, if people want to get the vaccination, they know how to do that where to go. And they’ll have a whole host of information relating to COVID,” including testing and vaccinations, Demboski said.
Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.