Yukon-Kuskokwim health CEO urges governor to mandate masks and encourage required vaccination

YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman is calling on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to to require universal masking in indoor public spaces, and to encourage all employers and schools to require vaccination. CREDIT KATIE BASILE / KYUK

As COVID-19 cases surge across the state, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation President and CEO Dan Winkelman is urging Gov. Mike Dunleavy to instate public health restrictions to contain the virus’ spread.

Winkelman issued a statement on Tuesday with his requests, asking Dunleavy to require universal masking in indoor public spaces and to encourage all employers and schools to require vaccination.

“The delta variant is causing a surge in COVID-19 cases that require hospitalizations and critical care support across Alaska,” Winkelman wrote. “Between these cases, summer activity-related injuries, and other serious medical issues, Alaska’s referral hospital capacity is at a crisis point.”

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Currently the state only encourages masking, and Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor, has said before that Dunleavy will not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for state workers.

Winkelman’s requests come after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week for everyone age 16 and older. It’s available to children age 12 to 15 under an emergency use authorization. The emergency use authorization also allows third, booster doses for immunocompromised individuals.

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YKHC is one of many Alaska health care organizations already requiring COVID-19 vaccines for its employees. In his statement, Winkelman said that CEO’s from Alaska’s largest hospitals met with the governor on Monday. The hospital managers informed the governor that the state’s critical care capacity is nearly full.

“If cases continue to climb at current rates, statewide referral hospital capacity could unfortunately fill up,” Winkelman wrote. “If that were to happen, negative outcomes will increase for both those with severe COVID-19 illness needing hospitalization in critical care units, and those who suffer heart attacks, strokes, traumas and other serious yet normally treatable conditions.”

Hospital leaders are asking the governor to enact public health mitigation measures to prevent it from reaching that point.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.