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“I don’t know what more we can do.”
That’s what Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson claimed earlier this month as cases of covid-19 and hospitalizations surged, kicking off what has been weeks of new records and increasingly horrific scenes from hospitals stretched so far beyond their capacity that on Wednesday the state activated crisis standards of care and an $87 million contract to hire 500 health care workers for 90 days.
So apparently stumped is Bronson that he held an indoor pep rally with extreme-right Assemblywoman Jamie Allard this weekend to drum up opposition to the Anchorage Assembly’s proposed mask mandate that will be heard at next week’s assembly meeting. The hearing served as platform for all the latest conspiracy theories, including the particularly wicked allegation that the hospitals are simply faking it.
“Clap if you believe that the statement about there not being enough beds or staffing for beds is inaccurate,” said HR Director Niki Tshibaka, husband to far-right U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, said to raucous applause from the audience.
The hearing also featured a promise of a shootout over vaccines.
The rhetoric has taken root and flourished in the extreme-right corners of Alaska as a way to downplay the seriousness of the state’s outbreak—which currently ranks the worst in the nation—and justify the hands-off approach favored by Bronson and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Florida-run Must Read Alaska has happily given platform to these conspiracy theories, publishing a video that allegedly showed an empty ER that the Alaska Landmine confirmed was actually just “a walkway … near the gift shop.”
As preposterous as the claims have been, they’ve had real-world consequences.
Health care workers have reported increasingly aggressive confrontations. At a news conference on Wednesday, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink pleaded for “kindness and compassion” for the state’s health care workers “who have been physically threatened and violently attacked at times.” The Anchorage Daily News’ Monday report on the daily cases included a line about how “Someone spat on a Providence resident as he left work.”
During Wednesday’s news conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy didn’t give the same endorsement to far-right conspiracy theories that Bronson had but there were plenty of winks and nods to the basic notes. The collapse of the state’s health care system, he claimed, is only partially driven by covid-19. Burnout akin to what everyone is experiencing and regular ICU visits, he said, are also the drivers of what has become a steady march of new records in hospitalizations.
That the death rate—which is likely underreported thanks to a that brought down the state’s health website for months—is actually not that bad, he claimed, when you consider the thousands of Alaskans who’ve died from other causes. Dunleavy, who also said that he didn’t want to be “melodramatic” about the collapse of Alaska’s health care system, met reporters’ questions about masking and encouraging vaccines with thinly veiled anger—accusing them and his political opponents of politicizing the pandemic—while also sowing a bit of bothsidesism when it came to the underlying science of the pandemic, the vaccines and health care.
“I would just ask everybody to do their best to really rely on the best science. It’s difficult because the scientific community is not unanimous in their view,” he said in one of many lines that gave air to conspiracies that the science and medical community might be hiding something, later adding, “I think there are a lot of contradictions. Even withing the scientific and health care fields, you’ve got folks with different opinions on vaccinations, on therapies, etc. When you look at some of the governmental agencies–CDC, FDA etcetera, even the White house–there’s not a unified message. There’s not a unified outlook on this.”
The line was seized upon by right-wing Alaska Watchman, which has launched its own website to collect negative vaccination side effects and has been a regular source of vaccine skepticism, in its report on the developments.
Asked about the misinformation circulating around the pandemic, Dunleavy turned his ire on his political opponents who’ve called on him to do more with the pandemic. He accused them of trying to profit off the pandemic and suffering of Alaskans.
Why it matters
Not only are Bronson and Dunleavy refusing to enact proven measures to help curb the spread of the virus, they’ve at worst actively fueled the vitriol that has made the entire situation that much worse and at best refused to confront it in any meaningful way. Dunleavy’s claims that “We’re on top of this, we’ve always been on top of this” is belied by the fact that for much of the pandemic featured a progressive administration in charge of the state’s largest city that wasn’t afraid to enact mask mandates and limit large indoor gatherings when things got bad.
According to the state’s own research (which has curiously been stricken from the state’s website, but can be found on the web archive here), the city’s mandates were effective in helping curb the cases not just in Anchorage but all of Alaska.
“The MOA mask order (EO 13) in late June was followed by a decrease in the growth rate of the COVID-19 epidemic in Anchorage,” explains the report. “The Emergency Orders that limited and then closed public venues in late July and early August were followed by an even greater drop in transmission and the epidemic in Anchorage began to decline. The conclusion that these Emergency Orders contributed to decreased SARS CoV-2 transmission is supported by several lines of evidence.”
Yes, the state’s emergency hiring stint will make a difference for the state’s health care capacity but it does nothing to go after the underlying surge in cases—which crossed the 1,300 mark today. Mask mandates have been shown to work. Vaccines have been shown to work.
The outright denialism of Bronson and wink-and-a-nod denialism by Dunleavy will only ensure that things get worse before they get better.