Alaska Legislature

Alaska Senate advances telehealth bill that would also allow Alaskans to opt out of COVID-19 vaccine requirements

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate voted late Friday to advance a telehealth bill that, due to a series of amendments, would also allow Alaskans to opt out of vaccine requirements from businesses, hospitals and local governments.

Earlier in the day, the bill failed 9-8, two votes short of the number needed to send it to the state House, but lawmakers reconsidered that failure and four switched their votes, advancing the measure 13-3. A fifth, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, was absent from the revote.

As originally written, the bill was a telehealth measure introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to temporarily allow medical workers to meet patients online and write prescriptions without an in-person exam. Another section of the bill temporarily waives a state-mandated background check for newly hired medical workers.

But in a series of votes Friday morning, senators inserted three amendments that eliminate the ability of businesses, state agencies and local governments to require vaccinations from employees and clients or customers.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, was one of the four senators who voted no but switched to yes, allowing the bill to advance.

“The guarantee we’ve received is that the House is going to strip out all of the amendments and return to us the basic bill, which I really like,” he said.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said there is no such guarantee or deal.

“We just don’t make deals like that,” Stutes said. Micciche said that he is unaware of an agreement and did not speak to any members of the House before the second vote.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, also switched his vote. He said it’s his belief that the House will remove many, if not all, of the controversial amendments and that it was “imperative that the other elements of that bill move forward.”

If the House does remove the amendments, the revised bill would come back to the Senate for approval, and it would advance to Dunleavy’s desk if the Senate agrees with the changes.

State and federal public health officials say vaccinations, coupled with mask-wearing, are the best way to avoid spreading the virus and reduce the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The vast majority of Alaska’s virus hospitalizations and deaths involve people who aren’t vaccinated.

On top of surging virus case numbers driven by the delta variant, the number of COVID-positive hospital patients in Alaska has risen to record levels this week, placing additional stress on health care facilities already contending with staffing shortages and limited capacity. And the impacts of the strain on larger hospitals are rippling through Alaska’s health care system, adversely affecting the ability of outlying facilities to provide critical care to patients even in places with limited COVID-19 spread.

[Nowhere to go: Rural hospitals struggle to transfer patients as Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations hit new high]

But in speeches Friday, senators said they value Alaskans’ ability to reject vaccination if they so choose.

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, said she voted yes “to protect individual liberties in this bill.”

“I guess I believe people will do the right thing if you ask them,” said Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, who voted yes.

He said mandates feel like, “not enough people are doing the right thing, so we’re going to cram it down the throats of the people — and maybe in this case into their arms — whether they like it or not.”

Hoffman was among those who noted the overloaded condition of Alaska’s hospitals and criticized the idea that a vaccine requirement violates individual rights.

“What about the rights of the people who are walking the streets of America? They’re continuing to die,” he said.

COVID-19 tests in place of vaccination

The first passed amendment, from Sen. Roger Holland, R-Anchorage, said that anyone who requires another person to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination must also accept a positive result on a COVID-19 test or antibody test in place of a vaccination card.

Holland said that people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection have similar antibodies to those who have been vaccinated against it.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said in an interview Friday that people who have had COVID-19 should still get vaccinated because the combination of antibodies offers greater protection, and the amount of natural immunity can vary from person to person.

“That’s the reason that those who are immunocompromised are supposed to get three doses,” she said, adding that the best immunity seems to come from people who have both recovered from COVID-19 and been vaccinated.

“People who previously were infected with COVID-19, their immune system is continuing to provide some significant degree of protection. However, it does not look nearly as robust as those who previously saw COVID-19 and are vaccinated,” she said.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, argued against the amendment, saying that as currently written, a false-positive test could be accepted under the law.

The amendment passed 10-7, with eight Republicans and two Democrats in favor. Five Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.

No mandatory vaccinations

The second amendment, from Reinbold of Eagle River, says a person can object to the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine on religious, medical or philosophical grounds.

A similar version of this amendment passed the House and Senate earlier this year but lapsed when Dunleavy ended the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration in April.

[Banned from Alaska Airlines, state Sen. Lora Reinbold asks to be excused from votes at Capitol]

Some employers in Alaska require vaccination as a condition of voluntary employment, and some businesses and local governments have required it as a condition to enter particular indoor spaces. This week, the Biden administration announced new rules mandating that employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated, or tested weekly, to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The amendment passed 9-8, with eight Republicans and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, in favor. Six Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.

Services open to the unvaccinated

The third amendment, also from Reinbold, prohibits businesses, state agencies and local governments from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination “to access an area or service that is open to the public.”

“Based on vaccine status, you can’t be denied,” Reinbold said.

Kiehl, opposing the amendment, said its adoption could allow unvaccinated people to enter hospital lobbies or hallways.

The amendment passed 9-8, with eight Republicans and Wielechowski in favor. Six Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.

The Daily News’ Morgan Krakow contributed reporting.