U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is delaying her plans to visit Alaska in mid-September because of the current COVID-19 surge and will instead visit later this year, according to a statement from her office.
Rising virus rates, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, would limit community interaction, according to a statement Wednesday from Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.
“Out of an abundance of caution given rising COVID rates and in consultation with Alaska Native, local and federal leaders, the Interior Department today postponed the secretary’s visit to Alaska until later this year,” Schwartz said.
Haaland’s travel plans included a visit to King Cove, where residents have unsuccessfully sought to carve a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula in order to reach emergency care in larger cities more quickly.
Schwartz’s email Wednesday did not specifically say when Haaland now plans to come to Alaska, or which communities she will visit.
“This visit is critically important to the Secretary and to the mission of the department, and the kind of robust community engagement desired would not be possible given health and safety concerns throughout the regions,” Schwartz said.
The Interior Department oversees more than half the land in Alaska, with involvement in areas such as national parks, refuges, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, which approves oil and gas drilling on federal land such as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
COVID-19 cases have surged in Alaska alongside record levels of hospitalizations associated with the disease, putting severe strain on the state’s health care system.