House finance committee considers extending COVID-19 disaster declaration

An official room with wooden desks
Alaska House Finance Committee members meet with Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. CEO Angela Rodell in the Capitol in Juneau, Feb. 23, 2021. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Lawmakers are considering a bill to extend the state’s disaster declaration for Alaska’s response to COVID-19 after the previous declaration expired in February.

Supporters say the bill would allow health care providers to continue to offer alternate sites for screening and testing and continue to use telemedicine during the pandemic.

A bill first proposed by the Dunleavy administration would extend a COVID-19 disaster declaration until Sept. 30. But the administration has since backed away from extending a disaster declaration in favor of other measures to take some of the same steps.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum attempted to explain that reversal.

“Yes, we did submit this bill and then we pushed hard and tried to do this but just unsure of the level of support in the legislature for a full disaster declaration, we changed course to try to continue our responsible ongoing response for Alaskans,” Crum told the committee March 15.

“Yes, the tools to do this are HB 76,” he said. “Yes, some of the minimal tools can be identified in some other authorities as well. And this is the position, we’re trying to just continue this to help Alaskans out so they know we’re continuing for some solution.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on March 9 that he did not think the state needs a “full-blown” disaster declaration, and he prefers a limited bill that ensures some response, like the distribution of vaccines. That was the same day the state announced the vaccine would be available to everyone 16 and older who live and work in Alaska.

A declaration by the state is an official acknowledgment that an emergency exists. The bill as drafted also includes a plan to pay for the response, and it allows flexibility for health care providers for telemedicine and screening and testing.

Adam Crum, Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, answers a question during a press conference in 2019, at the Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, questioned Crum during a recent meeting on how long a pandemic emergency could last.

“What are those things that need to happen, between now and whenever… before we are no longer under a disaster?” Carpenter asked. “Because we’re discussing in this committee right now of extending the disaster and I don’t know based on your answer whether that’s necessary or not.”

Crum responded that making the vaccine available to all who want it will be the deciding factor.

“Once it’s available, that’s one of the main metrics we’re looking at, for letting the governor say, “Look, we have done our job, we’re trying to protect Alaskans and try to educate,’” Crum said. “When it comes to, as you said, is a disaster necessary in order to do this? No, the specific authority that we’ve identified for the distribution of vaccines can be done separate from a disaster declaration.”

By the middle of the month, the state reported around 140,000 Alaskans, nearly one-fifth of the total population, had been fully vaccinated.

The expiration of the disaster declaration in February coincided with Petersburg’s COVID-19 outbreak. Local health officials pointed to a drop in compliance with travel testing and quarantine protocols that contributed to spread of the disease in the Southeast Alaska community.

The state’s requirement for testing or quarantine changed to a recommendation with the end of that declaration. Home rule municipalities can enact their own local health orders. But in some cases, those rely on voluntary compliance and are not strictly enforced.

Hospitals support the extension of the disaster declaration, and say without it they’re not certain if they’re in compliance with federal laws on telemedicine.

Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, testified that local governments have been scrambling to fill holes in the absence of the state’s declaration.

“Many have seen declarations expire since they were tied to the state’s and they’ve either been renewed or now fully expired,” Andreassen said. “Many have had to reconsider their own travel quarantine and testing restrictions. Many are in the midst of operating testing or vaccination clinics with questions about available resources, training and authorities. Some are now racing to address spikes in cases. Many are looking at an uncertain future. Ultimately it’s this uncertainty that ends up most challenging.”

A number of Alaskans also spoke against the extension.

Kelly Fishler of Juneau wanted more focus on the economic needs of Alaskans.

“Extending this declaration is further starving our economy by keeping businesses at reduced capacity or empty because no one will frequent them,” Fishler said.

Others testified they did not think the state is in an emergency.

Legislators have approved some amendments. One would spell out in state law that people can object to getting the COVID-19 vaccine based on religious, medical or other grounds. Another would require consent from a parent or guardian of a minor to get the vaccine.

Joe Viechnicki is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.

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