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Gov. Dunleavy, rural Alaska — and all of Alaska — needs a mask mandate.

  • Author: P.J. Simon
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 9, 2020
  • Published December 9, 2020

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks past the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks, Alaska Tuesday afternoon, March 31, 2020. (Photo by Eric Engman)

Jeff Cook penned an important commentary the other day, requesting stricter mandates from the Office of the Governor to protect Alaskans from COVID-19. Mr. Cook is associated with Foundation Health Partners in Fairbanks. Tanana Chiefs Conference is a tribal health and social services consortium providing health services to 16,000 patients in Interior Alaska through the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks and our 23 village clinics. TCC employs more than 1,000 dedicated staff, who have selflessly served our patients through the damaging COVID-19 pandemic. When our patients have a need for hospital care, TCC relies on Foundation Health Partners and the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital as well as the hospitals in Anchorage. To keep Alaskans out of nearly full hospitals, government-required prevention is necessary to a highly contagious virus that is disproportionally affecting Alaska Native people and elders across our great state. We humbly request stricter measures — such as a mask mandate — from the Office of the Governor.

Pandemics and epidemics have been a determining factor in the history of Alaska Native people. Our elders have talked quietly about “The Great Flu,” tougher times when some of our tribes lost more than 60% of their population overnight. Our rich oral history provides valuable lessons, including reduced travel, limited social gatherings and masking to reduce the spread of sickness. This tribal history should be guiding the state of Alaska through the COVID-19 response. At the turn of the century, limits of communication, travel and established government-relations prevented the necessary government actions from saving the lives of our people. Today those challenges do not exist, but our voices continue to go unheard.

TCC’s employee workforce and the rest of the Alaska health entities have endured many months of operation at the front lines of the pandemic. The Interior tribal leaders hold Alaska health employees in the highest regard! Although they are essential, they are not disposable; they selflessly allow themselves to be exposed by caring for others who are COVID-19 positive. Our staff may be on the edge of burnout after nine months of treating COVID-19 patients. Members of the public who have remained healthy do not witness or experience these daily stressors, but patients who have survived and the health care administrators who seek to support our staff understand the continued acts of courage by our health professionals. Gov. Mike Dunleavy can honor the heroes of the pandemic by issuing a “mask mandate,” which will assist in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

We understand that there is a vaccine on its way to Alaska, in all, maybe 35,000 inoculations for the first batch, which comes with it significant logistical challenges. With a state population of approximately 750,000 people, it will be months — some say a year — before the vaccine gets to all of rural Alaska. The bulk of the Interior tribal members in the villages have endured almost a year without traveling into our cities, mandating strict measures themselves to keep COVID-19 out of their respective villages. Our tribes have demonstrated good practices, utilizing their collective wisdom to make these important decisions to protect our valuable elders, children and adults. There are no hospitals in the Interior villages, only small remote health clinics that relay on medevacs to airlift hospital-bound patients. With the hospitals filling up and running out of medical and nursing staff, where are Alaskans going to go when they need health care services? What is the plan to reduce the spread? Instituting a mask mandate will ensure Alaskans that our governor is looking after our health interests and the interest of our invaluable health care workers.

P.J. Simon is the chief/chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal organization providing health care and social services for the 42 villages of Interior Alaska.

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