President Donald Trump on Wednesday night continued to resist the call for a nationwide shelter-in-place order, claiming that it didn’t make sense to shut down areas of the country—like Alaska—where there might not be a problem.
“In the Midwest or if Alaska, as an example, doesn’t have a problem, it’s awfully tough to say, ‘Close it down,'” the president said, noting that the response rests largely in the hands of governors.
Though Trump, facing dire projections and reportedly very bad polling, reversed course on his plans to get the nation “opened up and raring to go by Easter,” he’s refused public health officials’ calls for a nationwide shelter-in-place order to curb the spread of the virus.
But let’s be clear: Alaska does have a problem.
Alaska is at a near-standstill as local and state leaders have ordered shutdowns in order to curb the spread of the virus, which currently stands at 143 confirmed cases. The state’s seen a steady increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases—around 10 to 15 per day—and not yet the exponential explosion seen in other areas of country, but there are signs that it could soon be much worse.
Even with the relatively limited number of confirmed cases, Alaska’s health care system appears to be nearing its limit. Public health officials in Anchorage are pleading with the public for critical supplies and racing to expand the area’s health care capacity as they brace for an anticipated surge in cases.
And whether Alaska’s current situation is a result of the state and municipalities’ actions ordering businesses to shut down and for people to hunker down or a product of insufficient testing is not entirely clear. There have been several reports about difficulty in access to testing due to administrative decisions and supply issues. Testing hasn’t been available in some areas of the state.
Even people exhibiting symptoms have been turned away, leading many to wonder if the problem is far greater than the limited testing has shown.
That could soon change as rapid-response testing and other supplies become available.
In the past weeks, Trump’s reluctance to issue a blanket shelter-in-place was mirrored in Alaska as Gov. Mike Dunleavy resisted desperate calls to issue travel restrictions and a statewide order (or to send home non-essential state employees). The call was particularly acute from rural Alaska communities that already have extremely limited health care capacity and where a generation was orphaned by the 1918 flu pandemic.
Several rural communities instituted their own travel bans, recalling the horrific devastation caused by the 1918 flu, while others found themselves limited to how they could react.
For his part, Dunleavy initially called the virus a “momentary glitch” and has, at times, seemed to echo Trump’s call to get things, “opened up and raring to go.” More recently, he’s shifted his messaging to prepare Alaska for the long-term, calling a slew of administrative actions on the economy a stabilization effort for the day when things get back to normal. He’s also, at least publicly, appeared to be largely in-step with Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink who, like Dr. Anthony Fauci on the national level, has been a steady and assuring source of information and advice for dealing with COVID-19.
Dunleavy finally issued the called-for mandates last week when the Alaska reported its first in-state death of a resident, restricting in-state travel and ordering Alaskans to stay at home.
On Wednesday, the state announced it was canceling spring bear hunts in response to COVID-19.
Why it matters
Republicans leaders are facing a tightrope situation after stoking conspiracy theories and spreading baseless claims that COVID-19—or as Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young called it “beer virus”—was nothing to worry about. Now, they’re facing a grim reality that their hardcore base has been slow to accept, and in some cases have violently rejected.
They face uncertainty of their own making in an election year they hoped to win based on the strength of the economy. Attempts to downplay the virus in hopes of preserving the economic growth have only spooked investors and slowed the response, losing critical weeks and days of preparation.
What’s certain is that Alaska has a problem. The only uncertainty is just how bad it’ll be.