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Governor adds COVID-19 bills to special session agenda amid calls for disaster declaration

Alaska is seeing a surge of the delta variant and record COVID-19 hospitalizations
The Alaska State Capitol.
The Alaska State Capitol.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 4:55 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2021 at 5:41 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy added two COVID-19 bills to the special session agenda on Thursday aimed at strengthening the state’s pandemic response.

Some legislators and Alaska health care leaders have called on the governor to issue another 30-day disaster declaration with the state’s hospital system strained and close to breaking point.

The heads of several Alaska hospitals testified to a House of Representatives committee hearing on Thursday on the ongoing delta variant surge. They spoke about turning away patients from hospitals at full capacity and staff who are burned out and exhausted.

“We are at disaster mode,” said David Wallace, the head of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, describing how most nurses at the hospital are in counseling.

Ellen Hodges from the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. said that 50% of active COVID-19 cases in the region are among children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for the vaccine.

She described a patient who needed intensive care treatment who couldn’t be transferred for hours because there were no beds in Anchorage.

“I would ask to put yourselves in the shoes of this patient’s family,” Hodges said to the committee.

Jared Kosin, the head of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, wrote to Dunleavy on Wednesday, urging him to act.

“Alaska’s health care system is in crisis and we need action now, especially if the surge gets worse over the coming days and weeks,” he said.

He asked that medical licensing be expedited if the federal government approves emergency staffing resources and that the state waive some federal authorization requirements for treatments. On Thursday, Kosin said the changes could come from legislation or by a disaster declaration, but help is needed now.

The governor ended the latest state COVID-19 disaster declaration in April after protracted legislative debate whether one was necessary. Health Commissioner Adam Crum signed a public health emergency order on the same day.

Crum said on Thursday that a disaster declaration would be “overly broad” and that it would be limited to 30 days. The Dunleavy administration argues that the public health emergency order gives it the flexibility needed to address the pandemic and that only specific policy measures are needed now.

One of the governor’s bills would temporarily expand telehealth and telemedicine until July of 2022. The bill would allow health care workers to treat patients and prescribe treatments remotely without an in-person consultation first.

Another of Dunleavy’s bills was introduced in February and it would make permanent changes for licensing of nurses. If it passes, Alaska would join a multistate nurses coalition.

Advocates of the coalition say it would improve service and streamline licensing by allowing nurses from 34 states to easily work in Alaska. Critics, including the Alaska Nurses Association, say it would take autonomy away from Alaska regulators and jeopardize care.

The bill failed to pass from the Senate Health and Social Services Committee in April on a 2-3 vote. Democratic Sen. Tom Begich and Republican Sens. Mia Costello and Lora Reinbold voted against advancing the bill.

Begich said the nurse’s compact is troubling as it requires support from all member states to change the agreement.

“That takes power away from Alaskans and I’m not prepared to do that,” he said, echoing calls for the governor to issue another disaster declaration.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate committee and voted in support of the bill along with Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes of Palmer. Wilson said the Alaska Board of Nursing would still have authority to regulate if the bill passes.

“I was in favor of that and I think it would be a good tool for Alaska to have,” Wilson said about the coalition.

He suggested some health care workers would want to move to Alaska, seeking “a change of scenery” during the pandemic.

Begich was skeptical that many nurses from the Lower 48 would come to Alaska, especially coming into winter. There is a nationwide health care staffing shortage with doctors and nurses strained after combating COVID-19 for over 18 months.

The ongoing 30-day special session must end on Sept. 14.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional quotes and information.

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