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Lingering uncertainty over what the end of Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration means

There were concerns before the declaration expired that it could impact vaccine distribution.
There were concerns before the declaration expired that it could impact vaccine distribution.(KGNS)
Published: Feb. 17, 2021 at 7:36 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration expired on Sunday, leading health care providers and local governments to examine what impacts that will make as they try to combat the virus.

Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, said that municipal attorneys across the state have been working to understand whether local governments, particularly in smaller and rural communities, can keep their COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place. “And the answer right now is that there is no answer, we’re not exactly sure,” he said.

The lack of surety for local governments on their authority to issue coronavirus mandates has been an ongoing issue during the pandemic.

For now, there is uncertainty at the municipal level, Andreassen said, but it’s hard to pinpoint after just a few days what tangible impacts that the expiration of the declaration has meant. “Until there’s something bad that happens, we’re not going to know what we don’t have in place,” he added.

There have been some immediate changes being felt across Alaska from the disaster declaration expiring.

In Anchorage, the popular Lake Otis drive-thru testing facility operated by Providence Health & Services Alaska was permanently closed on Monday. Another facility was quickly opened by the Municipality of Anchorage.

Over 200 regulations were suspended until last Sunday, including automatically extending when driver’s licenses expire while the disaster declaration was in place. Those regulations are in effect again.

Alaska also risks losing an additional $8 million per month in federal food assistance payments, starting in March. The Dunleavy administration is investigating whether it can get a waiver to keep receiving that relief.

Health care providers and health corporations are also trying to understand if treatment options allowed during the pandemic can continue without a declaration.

Jared Koisin, the CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Associations, urged for the declaration to be extended, saying losing it risked how the state distributes the vaccine and how health care providers treat the virus.

On Monday, he said that there are questions about whether out-of-state providers can keep having their licenses recognized by the state and whether alternate care sites, like the Alaska Airlines Center, can keep operating. Kosin said that the end of the declaration means that there is now added uncertainty among health care providers when they should be focusing on treating COVID-19.

Some in the health care sector say they have lost one useful tool: they could hold appointments with patients over the telephone instead of with a video call, but not anymore.

“This is problematic because not all patients in rural Alaska can be reached due to low bandwidth, or they simply don’t have the technology for a video visit,” said Angie Gorn, the CEO of Norton Sound Health Corp.

Bethel Democrat Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, who is also a spokesperson for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., wants the Legislature to extend the state’s disaster declaration quickly. She said that Medicaid and Medicare billing for telehealth has been impacted and patients now cannot get a telehealth appointment without having an in-person visit first.

With the expiration of the declaration, all of the governor’s COVID-19 mandates became recommendations on Sunday, meaning people flying into Anchorage are no longer required to have a negative COVID-19 test.

That is not the case for Juneau. The Juneau Assembly passed an emergency ordinance last Thursday that effectively extended the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration in the city and borough, meaning the same travel requirements are still in place.

“We intend for there to be no change,” said Robert Barr, Juneau’s emergency operations planning sections chief, about the disaster declaration expiring.

Barr hopes that another mass vaccination clinic can take place in Juneau next month, but that will depend on how many shots the city and borough receive from the state. He said 27.1% of eligible Juneau residents have received their first shot while 16.5% of eligible Juneau residents have received both shots.

In the state capitol, the vast majority of legislators urged the governor last week to issue a new disaster declaration. With the House of Representatives unorganized, it was unable to pass the governor’s bill that would have extended the declaration.

Instead, the Senate passed a resolution last Friday, urging the governor to keep the declaration in place for 30 days, largely to ensure that Alaska can still receive federal COVID-19 relief.

COVID-19 case counts have been dropping across Alaska and the state is leading the country in vaccine distribution. Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, emphasized that the resolution also urged for schools and businesses to reopen as Alaska enters a “recovery phase” of the pandemic.

The governor has said that his administration currently has the tools in place to manage COVID-19, but the Senate is considering other legislation that could help during the pandemic and beyond, such as removing the requirement that shareholders’ meetings be conducted in person. But, the governor’s disaster declaration legislation, which was introduced in January, has stalled in the Senate, for now.

On Wednesday, Micciche said that he and fellow senators will speak to Dunleavy administration officials to better understand whether federal COVID-19 funding for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, business relief and food assistance will stop without a disaster declaration.

“If we find that there’s a gap that remains, the Senate will do what we need to do to ensure that we help Alaska families with a full recovery,” he said.

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