Alaska governor again rejects calls to issue another COVID-19 disaster declaration

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, R-Alaska, in Juneau on Sept. 14, 2021.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, R-Alaska, in Juneau on Sept. 14, 2021.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 3:31 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy has again rejected calls to issue another COVID-19 disaster declaration.

Thirteen mostly Democratic Alaska legislators wrote to Dunleavy on Tuesday, asking that his administration do more to curb near-record case numbers.

“The health and well-being of Alaskans, as well as the welfare of our exhausted healthcare workforce, depends on masking requirements and gathering size limits only you can make possible,” the legislators wrote. “This isn’t politics. This is public health and economic security.”

Dunleavy wrote back on Wednesday, saying a disaster declaration is not necessary, especially with vaccines and therapeutics widely available.

“Exercising the Disaster Act does not give our team any more health tools than what they need and are using right now,” he said. “Masking is, as I have stated, a local issue best left to local leaders.”

Communities across Alaska have been implementing or reimplementing a flurry of mitigation measures to curb an ongoing case surge. Tighter restrictions are generally being put in place in communities off the road system.

Dunleavy noted in the letter that case rates across Alaska appear to be leveling off from record highs last week, state health officials are tracking that closely and say they’ll have a better idea next week if that is a consistent trend.

COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped earlier in the week but have gone back up slightly as of Friday.

How best to respond to the latest case surge has seen sharp divides among state legislators. There have been separate calls to push back on federal vaccine mandates.

The Alaska Legislature passed a bill in April, extending a COVID-19 disaster declaration until November. The governor ended it after signing the bill into law. A public health emergency was declared the same day, but it grants Commissioner Adam Crum fewer powers than the governor could use under a disaster declaration.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, signed the letter that calls on the governor to implement tougher restrictions.

“We should have some basic masking policies,” he said. “It starts in state facilities. There aren’t even masking requirements in state facilities.”

The governor rescinded a mask mandate in state offices in May, but he has directed state employees to work from home “to the maximum extent practical” through the end of the month. Some in the Legislature said that showed the severity of Alaska’s outbreak and why the fourth special session should be canceled.

Fields said there should be masking required indoors in public settings. He also believes Dunleavy should do more to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated.

Some conservative legislators have been focused on allowing patients to have advocates in hospitals during the pandemic. There have also been calls for the Legislature to push back against vaccine mandates. Hospital administrators have opposed those efforts, saying they would weaken the state’s COVID-19 response.

Rep. Ken McCarty, R-Eagle River, said he’s preparing a resolution to allow workers who have had COVID-19 to show proof of their antibodies to reject getting vaccinated.

“So you go to your employer and say, ‘No, I am taken care of, I have natural vaccination immunity to this, you cannot strip me of my job,” McCarty said.

The resolution is modeled off one passed by the Kentucky state Senate.

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