Alaska’s health care leaders want statewide mask mandate, COVID-19 disaster declaration extended

The governor said he would issue a 30-day extension to the declaration at a press conference Friday
Alaska Native Medical Center workers lined up and ready to conduct COVID-19 tests at a...
Alaska Native Medical Center workers lined up and ready to conduct COVID-19 tests at a temporary indoor site. They'll be back outside once a winterized drive-thru is set up.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Nov. 6, 2020 at 6:22 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s health care leaders want the governor to implement a universal mask mandate and for the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration to be extended.

Jared Kosin, the CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, gave a stark warning with COVID-19 cases surging across the state. “Let me be clear today, at this rate, Alaska’s hospitals are headed for crisis,” he said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have reached record highs as of Friday and hospitals are strained. High levels of community spread mean hospital staff are regularly coming into contact with COVID-19 and are off work in isolation.

Preston Simmons, the CEO of Providence St. Joseph Hospital of Alaska, said that between 30 and 40 staff have been off work each day in isolation. “Now, we’re having 80 to 100 staff out daily due to community exposure,” he added.

On the Kenai Peninsula, it’s a similar story. Rick Davis, the CEO of Central Peninsula Hospital, said that 37 staff were off work Friday and that nine staff are currently positive for COVID-19.

In Fairbanks, Shelley Ebenal, the CEO of Foundation Health Partners Fairbanks, said that was a problem in the Interior too.

“We have so much staff out, we have the night shift staying in order to staff our hospital,” she said. “Really, where we are struggling is not the number of COVID patients in the hospital, but the number of staff that can’t come to work, either because they have COVID, or they’re on isolation or they don’t have child care.”

The state’s disaster declaration for COVID-19 is slated to end on Nov. 15. Alaska’s health care leaders were unanimous in a web call with reporters saying that it can’t be allowed to expire.

“Our ability to provide health care would be utterly compromised,” Kosin said. “There would be no authority to operate alternate care sites, no authority to administer home monitoring programs for COVID patients, no authority to render telehealth without provider and patient constraints, no authority to systematically expedite licensure of critical health personnel.”

Dr. Bob Onders, the CEO of the Alaska Native Medical Center, said 10 COVID-19 patients are currently being treated in a facility normally used for housing. Without a state disaster declaration, that wouldn’t be possible.

The governor said last week that a decision would be made on the disaster declaration this week. Options include calling for the Legislature to extend the current declaration through a special session or issuing a second disaster declaration.

At a press conference Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he would issue an extension to the emergency declaration, saying it was in the best interest of Alaska to declare a new emergency for 30 days.

The Legislature’s top attorney says that the governor issuing a second disaster declaration for COVID-19 would likely violate Alaska law that says only the Legislature can extend a disaster declaration beyond 30 days.

There was widespread agreement among Alaska’s health care leaders that the state has been a good partner during the pandemic.

“We’ve actually received a lot of support from the state of Alaska and we really appreciate that,” said Dan Winkleman, the CEO of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp.

Tim Gilbert, the president and CEO of Manillaq Association echoed that but said more help was needed with COVID-19 testing. “That was an early issue for us and has kind of remained an issue for us,” he said.

The seven heads of major Alaska health care organizations were unanimous in calling for Alaskans to wear facial masks to curb the spread of COVID-19. “If someone asks us if we support a universal mask mandate, the answer is yes,” Kosin said.

The governor has resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate, saying that decision should be made by local communities.

Onders said there was frustration with that piecemeal approach. “We have to do it together, a patchwork legal frameworks across the state are not going to stop the spread,” he said.

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