Sen. Donny Olson will delay return home to Golovin instead of risking COVID-19 spread

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, announces during special orders on the Senate floor he will delay returning home instead of risking bringing COVID-19 to rural Alaska. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

As legislators rush to wrap up work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one legislator is warning that they and their families could spread the virus in their haste to return home.

It’s a risk that’s far too great, said Sen. Donny Olson, who announced on the Senate floor today that he and his family would delay returning to the 100-person village of Golovin in Northwest Alaska.

“It saddens me that even if we adjourn here in the next few days, I cannot return back to Golovin, a place I dearly love. My children miss it greatly. I have made the decision that my family of eight will not return to Golovin right away,” he said. “The risk is too high that we carry the virus back to our small village of 100 people.”

He warned that legislators may be personally responsible for spreading the virus as they travel from the crowded capitol building—which has closed its doors to the public—through airports to their home communities.

“Our state is in the middle of a crisis. A pandemic. You and I may be called upon to assist with our medical expertise and training,” he said, referring to Senate President Cathy Giessel, a nurse. “COVID-19 virus is here. It is real. It will kill people. It may even kill the ones we dearly love and know. … My fear is this Legislature, as a whole, does not recognize that in time we may be responsible for people dying. Not the governor, not Dr. Zink but us. I stand with the governor and Dr. Zink in doing whatever is necessary to stop the spread and to give medical personnel the needed supplies and support.”

No legislators or legislative staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and there have been no confirmed cases in Juneau. Some legislators, however, are taking part in self-quarantines after out-of-state travel.

Olson, a doctor, said he is particularly concerned about the safety of rural Alaska. He recalled that the 1918 Spanish Flu, which is increasingly being compared to COVID-19, decimated rural Alaska.

“You may say this is too extreme,” he said of his plans to not return home, “but let me retell a quick story: Back in 1918 the Spanish Flu Epidemic hit Nome in October. By the time the epidemic was over, it had killed a large portion of the Native population. Annihilated whole families, villages and left a scar on rural Alaska that is still felt today.”

He said villages that closed their entry to visitors survived.

“The village of Shishmaref in 1918 blocked off the dog team trail into its town when it heard word of the virus and posted armed guards after setting up a barrier to halt anybody going into the village of Shishmaref. The guards outside the village refused to allow anybody in. These actions saved all the lives in Shishmaref apparently without loss of life,” he said. “The village of Wales was not so lucky. When the flu reached that village, there was no stopping it. It killed five out of every seven people in the village. Bodies went unburied. Families frantically reorganized to try and avoid being forced from the village. The trauma at that time was still felt today.”

As COVID-19 cases have begun to be discovered in Alaska, with the latest tally reaching 12, there’s been increasing worry for rural Alaska communities, which not only have limited health care capacity but also are on the end of a long and expensive supply line.

Some villages have implemented restrictions on visitors, like Grayling, which closed entry to all visitors for 30 days and is requiring anyone who leaves to return with proof of a COVID-19 screening, but many others haven’t. It’s sparked calls from Alaska’s emergency room directors for the government to put a halt to nonessential air travel, including in-state travel.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, speaking at a Thursday afternoon news conference, said such a dramatic course of action has been discussed but is not currently planned. He said things could shift quickly.

“Just because at this moment we haven’t issued a mandate on that particular issue, doesn’t mean that in a few hours or tomorrow that could change,” he said. “We just aren’t there at this point.”

Other coronavirus news

  • There are three new cases—two in Fairbanks and one in Ketchikan—of COVID-19 in Alaska as of Thursday, bringing the total count to 12.
  • The two new cases in Fairbanks are the first that are not linked with recent out-of-state travel. The state is unsure if they may have come in contact with the previous Fairbanks cases or if it is the first reported case of community spread, where the source of the infection is unknown.
  • The state’s testing is hampered by the lack of available nose swabs, a common medical supply. Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, called on local health clinics to check their supply rooms to see if they had additional swabs. She also talked about the potential to manufacture the swabs domestically.
  • The state is ordering a halt to all elective surgeries and procedures for three months. This also extends to all dental procedures for that time. It’s intended to preserve the state’s supply of gloves, masks and other supplies.
  • The Legislature is quickly pushing ahead with legislation to expand the state’s unemployment system and Gov. Dunleavy says another economic stimulus package is planned to be released on Friday.
  • Dunleavy declined to publicly chastise the 10 Republicans who blocked funding for the state’s supplemental budget, which could leave $32.5 million in COVID-19 response and Medicaid underfunded. He said, though, “I support anybody and everybody that’s trying to move Alaska forward.”
  • Without that funding, Medicaid is set to run out of money on Monday, March 23. This won’t directly affect Medicaid beneficiaries, but it will put hospitals and other health care providers in a pinch as they will have to continue delivering services but with delayed compensation. The state has gotten close to this in recent years but has typically approved funding in advance.
  • DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said that remaining Medicaid payments would be prioritized to smaller providers that might quickly run into cash flow problems, while hospitals would be asked to go without payment.

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