Dunleavy issues disaster declaration for coronavirus, says economy is ‘second to health concerns’

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink explains the state's preparations for coronavirus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy today issued a public health disaster emergency declaration in order to ramp up the state’s response to coronavirus, noting that it’s likely a matter of time before the virus arrives in Alaska.

“It’s going to be in Alaska and it’s probably here now,” he said. “Chances are it’s going to grow.”

The declaration allows the state to more quickly purchase supplies, hire staff and access federal funding for the state’s response. It also allows the state to implement isolation and quarantines, though the state’s top health official said the state is not currently calling for cancellation of any public gatherings.

At a news conference today, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink urged Alaskans to practice preventative measures such as hand washing and social distancing. She didn’t call for events to be cancelled but said people should make the decisions for themselves based on their personal health—the disease is far more dangerous for people over 60 and people with pre-existing health conditions—and their communities.

“We’re having lots of conversations with basketball tournaments, with state organizations, with schools, with the University of Alaska. We’re having these conversations and saying, ‘What does this look like?'” she said about how things might change. “I think it’s important to continue to live our lives but figure out ways we can modify our lives.”

She suggested that groups consider holding meetings and other events online but said it will depend on a case-by-case basis. She didn’t rule out the possibility of forced quarantines in the future, though.

“That answer is going to be different in different components. Right now, we’re not mandating anything. We’re trying to get that information out there. I really believe Alaskans are better off when they can make those decisions themselves rather than coming out and saying this is what’s going to change all at once,” she said. “If we get to that point when we need to mandate it, then we will.”

Zink also suggested that Alaskans start to take the virus into consideration with possible travel plans, noting that she’s practicing social distancing with her family and recently told her mother, who’s over 60 with an underlying lung condition, to cancel a trip to Alaska to avoid travel.

The state has so far conducted 47 total tests, of which 16 are currently pending. The 31 tests have come back negative. Zink said in order to avoid panic, though, they’re not currently disclosing where the tests are being conducted. The details of a case, if one comes up, might also be limited, she said, in order to protect the individual’s privacy.

The state has also issued a request for information for space to house coronavirus patients, which the Zink said could be used for housing to quarantine for people who can’t stay at home, are travelling in Alaska or are homeless.

Dunleavy said there the state’s looking at other resources to prepare and said measures are being discussed in preparation of infections like “no visitation at certain facilities” and school closures.

Economic impact comes second

Though Alaska has yet to identify any cases of coronavirus, the state is already feeling the pinch when it comes to oil prices, the value of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and in the tourism industry. With many communities heavily reliant on tourism—especially cruise ship-based tourism—it’s sparked anxiety about economic pain this summer.

Dunleavy acknowledged those concerns but said they’re not currently the top priority.

“This is going to change habits, and this is going to have an impact daily life, including the economy and in certain sectors especially,” he said. “We view the health approach as 1A but there’s a 1B that’s going to be discussed, and is being discussed by some, and that’s what’s the economic fallout going to be if there’s going to be changes in behaviors. Those discussions are absolutely happening, it’s just they’re second to the health concerns and the health approaches that we’re talking about.”

Dunleavy has requested more than $4 million from the Legislature to hire additional public health positions and to secure additional federal funding for the health response. That funding was approved by the Senate today in the mental health budget that has already passed the House. The legislation will need to return to the House for a concurrence vote, which could be held later today.

“We all realize that the economy and certain sectors may be impacted,” he said. “We’re having conversations with the federal government about that. We have talked with our Legislature first and foremost about resources dedicated towards the health impact of this, but I have no doubt that we will be talking about the economic aspect of this as well.”

On the federal level, President Donald Trump has floated the idea of a 0 percent payroll tax through the end of the calendar year, which has been met with a cold reception from Democrats and Republicans. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House, meanwhile, has pushed ahead with its own stimulus legislation this week that would boost social safety net programs like unemployment insurance and paid sick leave to help workers affected by quarantines. A vote on the House measure is expected as soon as Thursday.

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