Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration concerning COVID-19 Wednesday morning.
The declaration will allow the state to tap into federal funds, expedite certain procurement processes and allow the state to take special actions to address the spread of the virus.
The governor’s declaration followed from the World Health Organization’s announcement earlier Wednesday morning the coronavirus had become a pandemic, meaning it had spread over a wide area.
There are currently no known cases of coronavirus in the state, according to Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the State of Alaska. But considering the spread of the virus in other communities in the United States, particularly Washington state, officials expect the virus to come to Alaska in the near future.
“We’re in contact with federal officials, we feel pretty good about the protocols that we have in place,” Dunleavy said. “We had a teleconference this morning with mayors around the state, legislative leadership, our commissioners.”
The governor repeated the advice given by health officials that washing hands, staying away from large groups and diligent cleaning were excellent ways to contain the spread of the virus.
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said the state could receive $4.9 million from the federal government and potentially more.
The state was not yet mandating the closure of state facilities or that certain people stay home, Zink said, but officials would consider that option in the future if necessary.
It was important the state’s medical infrastructure not become overwhelmed, Zink said, thus exacerbating the crisis.
“We count on Seattle as part of our health care capacity,” she said. “We’re working very hard in the state to increase our capacity.”
Washington was one of the states that has seen the spread of the coronavirus, and strains on that’s state’s medical infrastructure would have repercussions for Alaska.
“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) put out community mitigation strategies,” Zink said, “From a personal standpoint, environmental standpoint and community standpoint.”
Personal efforts were things like washing hands and keeping at least six feet from other individuals when possible. Environmental strategies were things like wiping down surfaces and keeping things clean and community mitigation meant things like avoiding crowds, particularly around populations vulnerable to the disease such as elderly people.
The state would be releasing guidelines for people who work with elderly people, Crum said, such as home health care workers.
“Adults over age 80 have a 1 in 5 chance of mortality,” Crum said. “We’re making sure we get the resources we need.”
As of Wednesday morning the state had tested 47 people, Zink said. Thirty-one of those tests have come back negative, and 16 were pending, she said.
The state was increasing its capacity for testing, Crum said, but while samples for the virus can be taken at medical centers throughout the state, currently there were only two labs — in Anchorage and Fairbanks — that could conduct the test.
Later Wednesday, the Legislature passed expedited legislation appropriating $4 million in state funds and $9 million in federal funding.
“It would allow us to hire five public health nurses, three infectious disease specialists, one emergency management specialist to assist in lab testing and has some other funds the governor can allocate around the state as needed,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in a press conference following the vote.
Stedman, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, spoke alongside Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, the other Senate Finance co-chair, Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Senate Health Committee Chair Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla in the hallway outside the senate chambers.
The appropriations to address the virus were added to the bill for the state’s mental health budget. That bill was generally non-controversial, Stedman said, and historically had passed with little debate.
“We put it in the quickest vehicle we have available which was the mental health budget,” Stedman said, “which needs to be passed anyway.”
The money to be used for coronavirus response would come from this year’s budget, while appropriations for the remaining mental health programs in the bill would come from the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, according to Stedman.
The emergency funding adds yet another complication to the state’s budget concerns, Stedman said, but responding to the crisis was the first priority.
“We’re having daily updates on our revenue and obviously we’re having some difficulty meeting our expenditure,” he said. “But we can’t let the normal budget process slow down the funding to respond to this virus.”
Despite urging Alaskans to avoid public gatherings, Giessel said there were currently no plans to have the Legislature meet telephonically. It was important to keep the business of the state moving, she said, in order to adequately respond to the virus. The governor may require more money, Giessel said, which would require an act of the Legislature.
“In addition, (Dunleavy) declared an emergency. That emergency is in effect for 30 days, it can be extended by action of the Legislature,” Giessel said. “So, we want to make sure that we are healthy and functioning and ready to supply any funding that might be needed.”
The Legislature also created a joint emergency preparedness subcommittee to respond to the crisis. The committee has its first meeting Wednesday following House and Senate floor sessions, but that meeting was not open to the public. The purpose of the committee was to look at “best practices,” Giessel said, so the business of the state could continue.
But while swift action needed to be taken, Giessel and the other senators emphasized they wanted to make thoughtful decisions about the budget process, and that the normal process for passing a state budget take place.
“First call is the current fiscal year, and then we’ll struggle with FY21’s budget, The problem is constraints on our revenue and our savings,” Stedman said. “We’re a little less than $2 billion in our (Constitutional Budget Reserve), quickly going to be reduced. We’ve got to go through that process to have that political conclusion on what is a comfortable balance on our CBR.”
There were sure to be other effects on the state’s economy Dunleavy said, such as a reduction of business and people staying home from work. But the state’s first priority was containing the spread of the virus.
“This is going to change habits, different sectors including the economy,” Dunleavy said. “Those discussions (about other impacts) are absolutely happening but they’re second to the health aspect.”
Health officials urged people with questions about the virus to visit the state’s own coronavirus website, coronavirus.alaska.gov or the CDC’s https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
Those with health concerns are urged to call their medical providers or hospitals before arriving in person.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.