As GOP senators push to end disaster declaration, health officials raise alarms

Sen. Mia Costello during the Senate Majority news conference on Feb. 3, 2021.

Several conservative Republican senators want to end Alaska’s disaster declaration on covid-19 and stand in the way of legislation that would not only continue it but extend several measures that public health officials say would undermine the state’s response to the virus.

At the head of the effort is Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold, but opposition to the governor’s proposal to extend the disaster declaration through the summer has been similarly voiced by Senate President Peter Micciche as well as Sens. Mia Costello and Shelley Hughes. Costello, Reinbold and Hughes compose a majority on the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, where Senate Bill 56 currently sits.

“I think Alaskans want the disaster declaration to end. I speak for myself, but I do not see a compelling reason to extend it,” Costello said during Wednesday’s news conference, adding that she wants to ensure that vaccines are not mandatory, a position that the state public officials have never suggested would be the case. “I do not know if it will move out of the committee.”

Because their chief concerns seem to be with Anchorage-driven limitations on in-person classes and business capacity limits—things that are not at driven by the state—Costello was asked if they were addressing policy issues or were largely addressing misunderstanding and misinformation.

“You’re right that the closing for schools, for example, in Anchorage is a local decision,” she replied, “But what happens in this building in the state Legislature sends a message and so the message that would be sent to extend it to that degree I think is something that needs to definitely be looked at.”

The group of Republicans have wondered whether critical measures contained or linked to the bill—like emergency buying measures, public health guidance, travel limitations, mass vaccine clinics, mass testing clinics, waivers that have allowed the state to bring in additional health care workers, waivers that have allowed some licensed industries to continue operating, measures aimed at allowing nonprofits to take some fundraisers online and many others—could simply passed in separate pieces of legislation without calling it a disaster. Micciche said the GOP-led Senate is working to answer those questions.

“I actually agree that the Sept. 30th date is problematic,” he said. “Do we need an extension? What could be outside of an extension? We want to operate with facts. We understand that there’s no mandated vaccine.”

The disaster declaration expires on Feb. 14. Gov. Mike Dunleavy would have the power to end an extended disaster declaration early and the Legislature also has the power to end one early by law, too.

On Tuesday of this week, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told the committee that failing to pass the emergency declaration would undercut the state’s ability to quickly respond to the virus because so many powers to quickly purchase supplies and set up clinics are wrapped up in the disaster powers. Alaska currently stands atop the country in terms of the portion of the population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine at nearly 14%.

“The vaccine clinics, which have occurred around the state and have been so successful in keeping Alaska at number one of the vaccinated per capita, have occurred through us being able to rapid contracting with local providers and groups, procurement of space and items like this,” he said. “Typical government procurement process takes three months. Without the ability to do that … we would probably fall to the back of pack of vaccinations as a whole. … The whole situation and response. The safety metrics where Alaska leads, we would probably fall to the back of the pack.”

Public health officials reiterated their concern during a Senate Health and Social Services Committee hearing today. Division of Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg said the measures have helped quickly respond to the virus, quickly respond to outbreaks, quickly get the vaccination process rolling and has provided backup for communities that don’t have their own health powers.

“Without the ability to be nimble and respond to the imminent threats to Alaskans, our state would not be rated the number one safest state based on lowest deaths, lowest hospitalizations, lowest case counts and highest vaccination rates in the United States,” she said. “This will change if we don’t have the ability to respond quickly to request for support from the health care system and communities.”

It’s unclear what the immediate impacts will be if the Legislature allows the disaster declaration to expire. While the Legislature was not in session, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy extended the disaster several times in a process that many said violated state law. Despite the pushback in the Senate, the other problem is the House remains unorganized.

At least one side of the organization fight in the House has signaled that it supports extending the disaster declaration. The 20-member bipartisan Alaska House Coalition released a statement supporting the extension and the governor’s work on the disaster.

“I stand with leaders across our state who are calling for a prompt extension of Alaska’s COVID-19 disaster declaration,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who chaired the House Health and Social Services Committee last session. “This declaration provides crucial flexibilities needed by our hospitals, communities, and public health professionals to continue combating the devastating impacts of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this dangerous virus has proven it moves on its own timeline. It is imperative we provide all waivers necessary to protect Alaska’s frontline healthcare workers, empower State, Tribal, and local government leaders to work together, and receive all federal relief funds available for Alaska. Without this extension, communities without local health powers won’t have the tools necessary to address this pandemic.”

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