As COVID cases surge in Alaska, political strife escalates between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his challengers

As Alaska faces a record surge of COVID-19 infections that has overwhelmed the state’s hospitals, state public health officials say vaccination and masking are the best ways to limit and end the surge.

While other states have aggressively pushed both methods with incentives or mandates, the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy has preferred a voluntary approach.

In the last months of 2020 and the first months of 2021, the governor endorsed vaccination and said it is the best way to get through the pandemic.

But as new vaccination rates slowed and Republican views of the vaccination soured, the governor’s messaging appeared to change. While he has endorsed vaccination, he more frequently talks about it in conditional terms, saying Alaskans should talk to their doctors about getting vaccinated or should consider vaccination.

The governor’s political opponents and independent observers see a straightforward motive: Dunleavy is running for reelection as a Republican, most of his supporters are Republicans, and Republicans are much more likely than independents and Democrats to be skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccination and public health efforts.

On Wednesday, Dunleavy said he is not acting with political motives, but others, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara, a former Anchorage state representative, are acting politically by criticizing his approach.

“Absolutely, it’s about elections. And that’s a pox on their house. When you’re in the midst of a pandemic, and cases are rising, and people are going to the hospital. That is pure politics. 100% pure politics,” Dunleavy said.

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Gara, whose spouse is a hospital worker, said he has asked Dunleavy for months to listen to the advice of medical professionals. He said the governor’s decision to not push harder on vaccinations is a political act.

“That’s him politicizing things and him ducking responsibility for a job that I’m happy to take if he doesn’t want to do it,” Gara said.

“Disposable masks and vaccination is how we beat this pandemic,” he said.

Former Gov. Bill Walker, running as an independent in next year’s election, said he thought Dunleavy did well with the state’s initial response to the pandemic, “but then the politics seemed to creep in.”

The argument has potential to become a big issue in next year’s election campaign, but it could affect decisions involving the health of Alaskans.

The vast majority of Alaska’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among people who are unvaccinated, according to public health officials here.

There doesn’t appear to be recent public-opinion polling in Alaska that’s examined Republican and Democratic attitudes on masking and vaccination, but national surveys have repeatedly found a sharp divide.

This month, a Pew Research Center poll concluded that 86% of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 60% of Republicans and Republican leaners.

Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Alaska political consultant, said he has no reason to believe that the trend is different in Alaska.

Alaskans used to be slightly different from the rest of the country, Hellenthal said, but because Alaskans now get their information from the same national sources as the rest of the country, that has changed.

“Now, basically our national news is our local news,” he said.

“The (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley is heavy Republican and has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the entire state. That really highlights the theme: Politics has taken over medicine. Now, politicians tend to be our local doctors,” Hellenthal said.

In early 2021, as the first vaccinations began to be distributed, Dunleavy said voluntary vaccination would be the key to ending the pandemic.

“Now it’s time to make the final push. With over 310 million shots administered worldwide, the safety and efficacy of available vaccines has been well established. All three provide excellent protection against severe COVID infections,” he said in March.

On April 2, Dunleavy appeared in a TV commercial urging Alaskans to get vaccinated.

“If you’re 16 or older, join me, receive the vaccine, and get Alaska up and running,” he said.

That commercial hasn’t run on TV or radio since May 22. That’s a time when political differences over vaccination began to widen nationally, according to figures published by Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Alaska, the rate of new vaccinations has slowed significantly. Between Jan. 13 and May 22, about 329,000 Alaskans received at least one dose of the vaccine. In the four months since then, fewer than 90,000 additional residents have gotten at least one dose.

Once a national leader in vaccination rates, the state is now below the national average.

The rate of new vaccinations has risen since the start of September, but it remains well below what it was at the start of the year.

Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Dunleavy “will appear in upcoming COVID-19 PSA ads. Among his messages, he highlights that vaccines are readily available to all Alaskans and urges cautious behavior to help the strain on hospitals.”

In recent radio and TV interviews, the governor has frequently said Alaskans should talk to their doctor and give “serious thought” to getting vaccinated. He did so again on Wednesday.

That’s softer wording than public health officials have used.

“Prevention is way cheaper, way easier and it’s going to be the thing that’s going to get us out of the pandemic as quickly as possible. The biggest thing is COVID-19 vaccinations, and boosters when they’re available and you’re eligible,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.

Asked Wednesday whether he will make a stronger push, Dunleavy said, “I’ve said on countless occasions that Alaskans should seriously consider getting a vaccination if they have not. I’m not going to berate Alaskans. I’m not going to yell at Alaskans. I’m not going to cajole Alaskans.”

Walker said he’s worried that Dunleavy isn’t following the advice of medical experts.

On Sept. 1, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association sent a letter to the state with 10 urgent requests. The state’s response said it has enacted solutions to all but two, those dealing with masking and vaccination.

“All I can say is it certainly appears he’s favoring his political base rather than the health of Alaskans,” Walker said.

Walker said the state should be “much, much more aggressive on the urging of the vaccinations” and suggested that Maryland and Massachusetts — two states with Republican governors — are examples to follow.

In Maryland, state employees are being paid a $100 bonus if they get vaccinated, the state is running a multimillion-dollar lottery for adults who get vaccinated, and younger state residents are eligible for a scholarship lottery. Many local cities and counties are also offering cash incentives to get vaccinated.

Here in Alaska, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce is operating a small-scale lottery drawing, funded with federal money distributed by the state, but there are no state-level cash incentives.

“The governor has not taken a position on the raffle,” Sullivan said. She said his administration has not considered a cash incentive for either state employees or members of the public.

“The administration is not preparing any cash incentive program urging the public to get vaccinated. The Chamber is already undertaking this,” Sullivan said.

“I think Dunleavy is walking the tightrope as delicately as he can,” said Ivan Moore, a political analyst in Anchorage.

He, Moore, Gara and Walker each said they don’t know whether the COVID pandemic will be a major issue in next year’s election.

“It depends whether we’re still in it, or whether it’s history by then,” Moore said.

Regardless of what happens next year, COVID-19’s political divides have already had major effects. Zink said health care workers “have been physically threatened, and violently attacked at times ... in situations and circumstances they’ve never seen in their careers.”

“I’ll just say that I feel like the biggest tragedy that has come of this is the polarization and the politicization of this issue,” said Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, chief of staff at Providence Alaska Medical Center, during a public radio call-in show this week.

“You know, it’s about science, and we have made it about politics,” she said. “And it is so unfortunate because people are suffering everywhere.”