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Since last week’s impactful House Health and Social Services Committee on the state of Alaska’s health care system (find the recap in the last edition of Friday in the Sun), the question that has really stuck with me is not what Alaska’s health care system needs to handle the surge in cases but what we’ll do about the surge in cases that is straining Alaska’s health care system.
The answer, so far, has been not much.
On the local and statewide level, Republican officials have been wary about implementing any new disaster declarations or public health mandates as they enter a high-stakes election year despite increasing calls to do anything about the largely unchecked surge of the highly contagious Delta variant.
After a head-turning interview with Alaska Public Media, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson might as well label himself as “pro-covid” after claiming masks and other public health mandates don’t halt the spread of the virus despite loads of research proving just the opposite. Not even a line around the Anchorage hospital’s would convince him to act, he said in an interview that also praised Florida’s handling of the pandemic and reiterated his refusal to get vaccinated.
“I’m talking to doctors all the time, some of them who are afraid to come out and speak against the public — maybe political issue or perspective — on masks,” he said.
Even urging people to get vaccinated has proved to be a bridge too far for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, whose tepid calls for vaccinations are all followed by an “if you want to” and at worst with counterproductive comparisons to North Korea and Nazi Germany.
So now, as Alaska’s hospital system is reporting yet another new record in hospitalizations today with a whopping 186 covid-19-related hospitalizations (that’s 1 in 5), Dunleavy is pushing for a legislative solution with fewer than 10 days left on the special session agenda. One of those bills—opening Alaska’s doors to a permanent interstate nursing compact—was already spiked by the Senate Health and Social Services Committee earlier this year, raising some eyebrows about how serious the administration really is about offering meaningful solutions. The other piece of legislation, Senate Bill 3006, was heard in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee today. It would do the following:
- Allow the Division of Insurance to waive utilization review requirements, which the state says would allow for faster discharge of patients.
- Allows telehealth providers from Outside to work in Alaska through July 1, 2022 without first obtaining an Alaska license or conducting an in-person physical exam.
- Suspends the background checks for employees of hospitals and nursing homes through July 1, 2022. It’d expect hospitals to conduct the check themselves.
- Allows Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum to “waive any state law or regulation” if they would get in the way of the above items.
An official testifying to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee today said that the goal with the measures is to “enhance the state’s effort to slow the spread of covid-19.”
What was notably lacking in the explanation from either the state or in questions from the legislators is just what beefing up hospital capacity—assuming there’s the workers available—will do to help slow the spread of covid-19.
The closest we heard to that was when Crum said loosening the background check requirement would speed up hiring for hospitals, eliminating a roughly 14-day waiting period, and free up seven employees to work on other issues. Telehealth measures would reduce the need for those first-time, in-person consults… and that’s about it.
And, sure, the state’s efforts to combat the covid-19 pandemic aren’t limited to this bill (they’re also asking for the authority to spend tens of millions of dollars of federal relief money), but left largely unanswered is what—if anything—the state’s going to do to go after the underlying cause of the state’s strained health care system: Covid-19.
The message from the health care providers and groups last week was pretty clear: Mask up and get vaccinated. The best way to avoid long-term health consequences of covid-19, they said, was to not get covid-19 in the first place. The best way to avoid straining the hospital system to the level of Idaho, which instituted a rationing system this week that allocates care those most likely to survive.
Alaska Native Medical Center Administrator Dr. Bob Onders was one of the more outspoken testifiers to the House Health and Social Services Committee last week, reiterating the need for vaccinations and indoor masking mandates. He argued that they helped limit the spread of covid-19 in the Anchorage area and it should reimplemented, warning that the measures alone wouldn’t address the underlying problem.”
“I’m concerned that if people think that alone will provide an immediate solution, I would caution them. There is a very limited number (of hospital workers), even with a streamlined process, nationally to get staffing here,” he said. “I’m not sure that that solution will be as robust as we need. The prevention of infection is even more critical. … Public indoor masking is key component of that that could mitigate spread.”
Until something is done to reduce the spread—continued vaccinations, mandates for masking in public spaces or elected officials taking the difficult stance of not playing to the base for once—Alaska still faces an uncertain road ahead that will only ensure this pandemic lasts that much longer.
And maybe that’s the point.