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Alaska Senate passes COVID-19 response bill after debate over vaccine mandates

The Alaska Senate in Juneau, Alaska.
The Alaska Senate in Juneau, Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 3:13 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2021 at 7:07 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - After one failed vote earlier in the day, the Alaska Senate passed a bill on Friday that would expand telehealth capabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Debate came after it was amended to oppose vaccine mandates.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Some senators say the bill passed with the understanding the House would strip out the provisions that attempt to prohibit vaccine mandates.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he wasn’t aware of any agreements with members of the House.

“I have not spoken to anyone in the House about this bill, that’s not what I do,” he added.

The original legislation was introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier in the third special session with COVID-19 cases surging across Alaska. It aimed to strengthen the state’s pandemic response by temporarily waiving some telehealth requirements.

The bill initially failed in the Senate on a 9-8 vote with Democrats and moderate Republicans voting against it. It required 11 votes to pass to the House. Three Senators were absent from Friday’s floor session.

The Senate passed the bill later in the day on a 13-3 vote.

On Friday, the bill went to the Senate floor for amendments. One narrowly passed that aims to allow Alaskans to decline the COVID-19 vaccine for philosophical reasons. Another passed with the intention that it would prevent Alaska businesses and state agencies from requiring employees to be vaccinated or show proof of vaccination status.

The amendments were debated after President Joe Biden’s vaccine executive order was announced on Thursday. It would require millions of federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 along with federal contractors. Businesses with 100 or more employees would also be required to vaccinate their staff or have them tested weekly.

Some senators said on the floor that when they clashed, anti-vaccine mandate amendments would not trump an executive order, but they would be in place if it is struck down in court. Several senators said they could not vote for the bill after the amendments opposing vaccine mandates were added.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, voted against the bill initially and was not on the Senate floor for the second vote. He said that “every life matters” and that a strong COVID-19 response is needed in Alaska.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes supported the bill, saying it is critical that Alaskans be able to decline the vaccine if they choose to.

“I have a duty to uphold individual rights,” she said.

The House Health and Social Services Committee has scheduled a hearing on the Senate bill on Saturday. The 30-day special session must end on Tuesday.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with more recent information.

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