As cases continue to climb, Dunleavy admin cuts daily COVID-19 news releases to three a week

Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

The daily press alerts that fill in the details behind the day’s COVID-19 case count are being cut to three times a week, the state said in its Sunday news release that announced 33 new cases of COVID-19.

The new alerts will only be published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with plans to publish some summaries of new cases on Facebook and Twitter. The announcement says the change is “intended to continue to provide the public with similar information, but in a manner that will be more sustainable over the long term as the pandemic continues.”

The news alerts typically include a geographical breakdown of new cases—which is also available through the state’s online dashboard—and gives the daily count for non-resident cases, a number that is not easily accessible through the state’s website. The state recently started to combine the resident and non-resident case counts in the headlines of its news releases.

The change was flagged by columnist Dermot Cole on Twitter Sunday night. Cole, a critic of the Dunleavy administration, said the claim about not having the resources to produce regular releases over the long term “is a cover story that no one should believe.”

“Dunleavy hired the likes of Dan Saddler, Rick Rydell, Dave Stieren, Tammie Wilson and other private sector champions who could handle this task. Also, a Washington, DC contractor, Mary Vought, who could take time out from polishing Dunleavy’s image,” he said. “It is an insult to Alaskans to claim the Dunleavy administration doesn’t have the resources for a daily handout. This is simply a way to downplay COVID-19, copying Trump.”

What the state means by “more sustainable” is not clear as the state was awarded $1.25 billion through the federal CARES Act legislation, which can be used for any costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it’s not entirely clear how much of that fund the state has remaining, about $1 billion has been earmarked for community payments, business grants and other public health responses.

While not quite at the level of Texas or Arizona, Alaska’s cases of COVID-19 have spiked following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s lifting of public health orders that closed businesses, restaurants and limited travel. Since then, the Dunleavy administration has refused to even answer questions about implementing a statewide mask mandate supported by public health workers and economists but opposed by the governor’s far-right base.

Legislators pleaded with the administration to set aside politics and implement a face mask mandate last week but when Anchorage implemented its own mandate, Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson released a memo saying that state employees working in Anchorage were exempt from the rule. The state has, instead, kept masks and social distancing in the “strongly recommended” category.

In Sunday’s news release, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, who last week refused to discuss a mask mandate despite acknowledging they’re effective in limiting the spread of the virus, warned against crowded gatherings like concerts.

“We are definitely seeing a sharp increase in cases in Alaska, and just like in other states, many of the recent new cases are in youth or younger adults,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “Some of these cases are linked to bars in several communities. Going to a bar right now, especially to listen to a concert, should be viewed as a high risk activity. The virus can spread easily in crowded indoor spaces, especially when people are close together and singing or talking. Please take precautions and if you do go, consider not interacting with anyone who is at high risk for serious illness such as older Alaskans or those with underlying health conditions.”

Why it matters

The state’s reporting of cases has been, to put it lightly, confusing. Up until recently, the state had not included the non-resident case count in the day’s overall case count, which led to conflicting headlines as outlets struggled with whether to include the non-resident cases in the day’s total. And still, finding the daily non-resident case count is not easily accessible on the state’s dashboard, which only has the cumulative non-resident case count easily accessible.

The news releases are not the only source of COVID-19 information, but they often provide important background on the cases as well as a fresh opportunity for the state’s public health officials to highlight important developments to the media–like Zink’s statement about the bar transmission. This kind of information is particularly important as the state pushes ahead with a shaky and uncertain reopening that largely relies on customer confidence in not getting sick.

Avoiding a re-closure was Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s main reason in issuing his mask mandate for the city of Anchorage.

Ending the daily updates in favor of three a week may not have the biggest impact in practice, but it also lends to the attitude that we’re past the worst of COVID-19–that it was just a “momentary glitch” after all–and can return to business as usual despite the state continuing to see large daily case counts.

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