Editorials

The quandary of Mayor Bronson’s pandemic response

On the issue of homelessness, newly elected Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson surprised some critics by drawing up plans for the municipality to commit far more resources toward shelters than the municipality has spent under any previous administration. On the issue of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, the mayor’s response has been no surprise at all.

Bronson’s mayoral campaign was buoyed by a strong wave of backlash to former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s health mandates that closed indoor service at restaurants, bars and other businesses. Accordingly, Bronson downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 situation, saying the pandemic was “over last summer” and pledging not to repeat the partial business closures. He has maintained that line since winning the mayor’s seat, appointing a Health Department director who has courted controversy with his own comments minimizing the pandemic.

Bronson’s hands-off approach to curtailing businesses’ ability to operate makes sense at this point in the pandemic. COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc on Anchorage businesses; the economy is on shaky ground and will likely remain so for at least a few years. Going back to business restrictions and closures is not an option. State case counts show that it’s people who have chosen to remain unvaccinated who are fueling the recent surge in infections. And it makes little sense to restrict the activities of responsible, fully vaccinated Anchorage residents — well more than half the municipality’s eligible population — because of the actions of those who are ignoring the clear evidence that the vaccines are safe, effective and our only way out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given that the mayor rightly wants to keep businesses open, his position on the vaccines themselves is counterproductive and potentially dangerous to public health. Speaking on his reticence to get a shot despite suffering from the prolonged effects of “long COVID” himself, Bronson said last week that he has “no intention of getting the vaccine.”

“In the airplane world, for example, you never fly the A-model of anything,” Bronson said, in an attempt to employ a metaphor related to his time as a commercial pilot and cast skepticism on the safety of the vaccines. The vaccines, of course, have been rigorously and widely tested. Clinical trials and the hundreds of millions of people inoculated so far have demonstrated that they are not only safe, but also incredibly effective in preventing COVID-19 spread and serious cases of the disease.

Leaving aside the fact that if pilots never flew the A-model of anything, powered flight would never have existed, there are serious factual and logical issues with the mayor’s explanation. First, the vaccines are not the “A-model” of anything: The mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are based on technology and development practices that have been around for decades. They were tested by tens of thousands of people in massive clinical trials worldwide before being approved, and millions upon millions have taken them since approval; their safety is not in question. What’s more, the mayor’s analogy improperly insinuates that taking the vaccines, like flying a new airplane, is inherently riskier than not doing so.

At this point in the pandemic — and yes, the pandemic is ongoing, as the hundreds of Alaskans being diagnosed with COVID-19 every day can attest — both the safety of the vaccines and the risks of not getting them are abundantly clear. Unvaccinated Alaskans, even young ones, are getting sick; more than 100 hospital beds around the state are filled with confirmed or suspected COVID-19-positive patients. Some of them are dying.

The pandemic as it exists today is a pandemic of the unvaccinated: Almost 96% of Alaska’s new COVID-19 infections since vaccines became broadly available have been in unvaccinated people, as have nearly all deaths in which the coronavirus was a factor. Unfortunately, the burden of those illnesses does not rest solely upon those who refuse to get vaccinated: When they get sick, they take up beds and hospital resources that could otherwise be used by those with non-COVID illnesses. The costs of their care are borne collectively by society — whether explicitly, in the case of those who can’t pay for their care, or via increased blanket premiums from insurance companies that raise everyone’s bills to pay for the care of those making claims. And children under 12 remain at the mercy of those around them — vaccines have yet to be approved for children that young, so they’re easy targets for the disease if others in their lives are unvaccinated.

Mayor Bronson should follow the lead of other Alaska lawmakers such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Rep. Don Young, who have in recent days acknowledged the efficacy of the vaccines and, citing their own decisions to get vaccinated, encouraged those still on the fence to get their shots too. The mayor’s encouragement could make a big difference among his supporters who have yet to protect themselves from the disease.

Mayor Bronson is taking the right policy approach by keeping businesses open and not imposing unreasonable restrictions. Now he needs take the right approach to the vaccine by admitting its efficacy and setting an example for the unvaccinated people of Anchorage. It’s the best way to safeguard public health, and it’s the best way to keep businesses up and running. This shouldn’t be a hard call for the mayor.