Alaska politicians react to Biden’s vaccine mandate, which would affect thousands of federal workers in the state

A bottle of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is prepped for a staff member at Alaska Regional Hospital.
A bottle of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is prepped for a staff member at Alaska Regional Hospital.
Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 8:33 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2021 at 3:55 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An announcement by President Joe Biden on Thursday to require vaccines for most federal workers and some private businesses will affect around 100 million Americans. That includes Alaskans.

The mandates affect federal workers and contractors, with limited exceptions, as well as private business employers that have more than 100 workers, which will need to require either vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing. The rules also include about 17 million health care workers in hospitals, clinics and other facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments.

Local reaction

Alaska’s News Source asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy about the executive order on Thursday afternoon during a press conference on resource development. He said he had difficulty responding because he hadn’t heard of it yet.

The governor’s office initially did not respond to requests for comment, but did take to social media later on Thursday, calling the requirements “ridiculous and unenforceable.”

On Friday, Dunleavy released an official statement, in which he said the vaccine is “the most effective way” to combat COVID-19.

“As Governor, and as someone who had Covid and has been vaccinated, I will continue to recommend that Alaskans speak to their healthcare providers and discuss the merits of the vaccine based on their individual healthcare needs,” Dunleavy is quoted as saying in the release. “With that said, President Biden’s attempt to force vaccinations is ill conceived, divisive, and (un-American). At a time in which we are called to work together, forced medical procedures run counter to our collective sense of fairness and liberty. My administration is aggressively identifying every tool at our disposal to protect the inherent individual rights of all Alaskans.”

The executive order received a mixed response in the state Capitol. Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, welcomed the announcement, saying it would save lives.

“It’s great news that somebody is stepping up to take on a leadership role to expand vaccination rates, that’s what we need to bring the delta variant under control,” he said. “And to protect people who can’t be vaccinated yet: kids. And as a parent of young kids, I know how important that is.”

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson in a prepared statement reiterated that he will not mandate vaccines locally, specifically saying that he will not mandate that businesses require their employees to get vaccinated.

“The idea that government would mandate businesses to force personal medical decisions on their employees is flat out wrong and immoral, and beyond the authority of the President,” Bronson is quoted as saying in the release.

Federal workers, health care and businesses

There are thousands of federal employees, federal contractors, and private businesses all across Alaska that these new requirements would impact. There are about 250 private businesses that are identified in the state with more than 100 average employees that would be impacted, according to economist Karinne Wiebold with the Alaska Department of Labor.

Wiebold said the state has a larger concentration of federal jobs compared to most other states. It’s partly due to the amount of federal land where people work, like the National Park Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Another big presence is the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities because of the number of airports, and the U.S. Postal Service makes up 1,500 of the approximately 15,000 federal jobs in Alaska, Wiebold said.

“Alaska has a little bit of an outsized dependence on federal employment,” she said. “We have more than a lot of other states have per our concentration of other jobs and that primarily has to do with the influence of the military in Alaska.”

That military influence makes up about 22,000 active military jobs in the state, and last month, Biden announced a vaccine requirement for those in the military.

Legislation is set to be heard on the Senate floor on Friday morning that aims to strengthen the state’s pandemic response. Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he expects robust debate about prohibiting vaccine mandates in Alaska when amendments are introduced.

It is unclear if the Legislature can provide exemptions for Alaskans or if state lawmakers can reject parts of the executive order.

Micciche believes the president’s order is “clearly” unconstitutional, particularly for the private sector. He said he finds the order to be “disturbing” and “arbitrary” for the 100-employee office requirement.

“I think there’s a responsibility to take a stand. Does it end up in a courtroom? Perhaps,” he said. “But I think nullification of irresponsible actions by a federal government, a federal government that likely does not have the authority for an action like this, is imperative.”

Micciche emphasized that he has chosen to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but said legislators should fight against the “overreach” of the federal government.

When Fields was asked about the constitutional implications of the order, he said that there is a long history of the courts allowing vaccine mandates, going back to smallpox.

“I think my kids have a constitutional right to survive,” he said.

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations National President Everett Kelley opposed the announcement, insisting that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate.” The Alaska branch of the AFL-CIO is not taking a position on the executive order.

When it comes to the health care sector, Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association, welcomed the news. Some local hospitals have already implemented vaccine mandates and Kosin said the president’s announcement would help provide a “uniform” set of rules.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” Kosin added.

What do Alaskans think?

Alaska’s News Source also asked local Anchorage residents what they thought about the new federal requirements. Many were against the vaccine being mandated. Some felt it wasn’t the right of the government to make a mandate and some said it should be a personal choice. However, others said they believe these requirements could save lives.

“I’m a federal worker, I’m a contractor, and now he is backing me into a corner where I have to get vaccinated,” said Wade Spear. “I really don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a smart idea,” said James Apone. “I mean if you look at all the science, all the science verifies that the vaccine is making progress in stopping these diseases.”

“I don’t like it because it’s kind of against our freedom of rights,” said Andrew Hobbs. “They shouldn’t make anybody take a medicine that’s not proven long enough on human trials.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated with additional information.

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