Legislative hearing calls on state to step up response to COVID-19 amid reopening

Alaska has backed off nearly all its health mandates as the state pushes to reopen but a legislative hearing today highlighted the need for the state to continue an all-hands-on-deck approach to combating the virus and the risk if it doesn’t.

The joint hearing of the House State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees heard from several health experts, state officials and public sector union representatives about the state’s handling of the virus both in and outside the walls of state offices. The takeaway message was that despite all the hard work that’s gone into limiting Alaska’s cases of COVID-19, there’s still risk of a new outbreak.

“I’ve first-hand witnessed a false sense of security with the easing of various health mandates,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee. “There’s a sense that somehow we eradicated COVID’s presence in Alaska enough to ease these health mandates but we also understand that the easing of these health mandates does not make the virus less contagious or the serious cases any less serious.”

Dr. Andy Elsberg, an emergency room physician at Providence, agreed. He said that hopes of establishing herd immunity in Alaska are unrealistic and that in place of a vaccine, which isn’t expected until 2021 at the earliest, the state must be smart and effective when combating the virus.

His biggest message was the need for the state to put teeth into its quarantine period for people arriving from out of state, one of the few remaining health mandates still in effect. He said it’s effectively voluntary and people are skipping it while some industries are exploiting essential worker carve outs.

“Our self-isolation for 14 days is a joke,” he said, recalling a story of a man in the airport making plans on a speaker phone to go out to eat the night he returned from Outside. “Every passenger who arrives in Alaska should be required to fill out their quarantine plan before they get off the airplane. The state and the muni need to make this happen instead of expecting the other party to do it.”

Elsberg suggested the plan might be revised, making it mandatory and eliminating the ability of some industries to skip the quarantine period. He said in response, the state could reduce it to a seven-day quarantine with a follow-up test at the end of the waiting period.

He said mass gatherings like parades are still too risky.

“Any mass gathering in the age of COVID is not realistic. It’s not something that should happen,” he said. “Getting people in proximity in a large group will spread this disease, that’s just unfortunately the way it is.”

Elsberg said for the most part Alaskans have taken the risk of COVID-19 seriously by wearing masks and respecting social distancing guidelines. He said unfortunately the federal government has confused the matter but said that the state has generally provided a clear and consistent message.

Communication was the big focus of testimony from public sector unions. Representatives from the Alaska State Employees Association and the Alaska Correctional Officers Association both said that they’ve been left in the dark when a state employee tests positive for COVID-19 and frustrated by the administration’s lack of communication when it comes to what reopening means for state employees.

“Currently, communications need to be improved greatly,” said Randy McClellan, President of Alaska Correctional Officers Association. “We sent a lot of question to the state and we appreciate the state taking our questions. The problem is we don’t receive a lot of answers.”

He said the state needs to be more regularly testing inmates and correctional officers, noting that the state has refused offers from hospital and clinics to do additional testing. He suggested that the state is trying to keep numbers down.

“Now is not the time to play politics,” he said.

Despite the state’s push to reopen, it’s not rushing to bring back state employees to office buildings said Kate Sheehan, the director of the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations. She said about 40 percent of state employees are teleworking and said those that can continue to do so should. She said there’s no immediate plans to recall state employees and that they’re working internally on a plan for moving forward.

ASEA President Jake Metcalfe told the committee that the unions have not been invited to participate in that process, adding that access to protective equipment and cleaning supplies has been inconsistent for state employees so far.

The committee also heard from Dr. Erin Bromage, an associate professor at UMAS Dartmouth who’s gained national attention for his work on studying the transmission of COVID-19. He warned that evidence shows it takes very little for the virus to spread and that things like the air circulation in an office space or restaurant can decide who does and doesn’t get sick.

He was adamant that working from home and maintaining mandates to prevent and limit the spread of the virus are key, especially in cases where asymptomatic people can serve as super spreaders of the disease, but acknowledged that Alaska is in a particularly good spot compared to the rest of the country because of its relatively high testing.

Though, as the state returns to work, he said that shared spaces still need to be considered high-risk for transmitting the disease.

“We have to look at these situations where a number of people are close to each other in close environments for an extended period of time because if we don’t look at that being a high-risk for a rapid escalation of cases, we’re going to see a rapid escalation of cases.”

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