Some buildings, like Centennial Hall, seen here on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, have been converted into facilities to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. If the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration lapses on Feb. 15, health officials are saying it could make combating the pandemic more difficult. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

With deadline looming, some say disaster order no longer needed

With deadline looming, extension isn’t guaranteed

The deadline to extend the state’s emergency declaration expires on Feb. 15, and without it, health care workers say combating the coronavirus pandemic could become more difficult.

State and private health officials are requesting the Legislature vote to extend the declaration. The health officials argue its provisions have allowed the state to effectively respond to the virus.

An emergency declaration was passed by the Legislature last year, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has used his ability to extend the order by 30 days twice now, but said he won’t do so again, citing the potential for legal challenges. But there’s resistance to extending the declaration, as some lawmakers and members of the public argue COVID-19 is currently well managed and better treatments are available.

With a deadline looming, and the House of Representatives still unorganized, City and Borough of Juneau officials are expecting the declaration to lapse. Juneau Emergency Operations Center Commander Mila Cosgrove told the Empire in a phone interview Tuesday the city had its own emergency orders in place and was operating its COVID-19 response from city-owned facilities.

“We very much want to see the statewide declaration extended,” Cosgrove said. “We really rely on the state EOC for guidance and resources to help us at the local level.”

[Different reasons, same conclusion: Disaster extensions concerns state lawmakers]

Juneau has local emergency orders in place until at least May, she said, and a mask mandate. Provided the city is able to get doses of the vaccine, it would be able to distribute it to the population, Cosgrove said. Facilities currently being used for pandemic response in Juneau are owned by the city, she said, and their use wouldn’t be affected by the declaration ending.

Speaking on a panel brought together by Rep. Tiffany Zulkoski, D-Bethel, Tuesday morning, health care workers emphasized the emergency declaration was about access to resources, not about mitigation efforts such as masking or hunker down orders.

“The state emergency declaration has nothing to do with (local mandates),” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “Anchorage can have a hunker down order. They can have a mask mandate. That has nothing to do with us.”

Kosin and other panelists said they understood there was a lot of frustration and fatigue with the pandemic, but said the provisions within the declaration are what has allowed Alaska’s response to be robust and kept the state’s numbers among the lowest in the country.

“If you’re frustrated with mask mandates, taking your frustration out on the state declaration is missing the mark,” Kosin said.

Nils Andreassen, president of the Alaska Municipal League and Kati Capozzi, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber both spoke in favor of extending the declaration.

A bill to extend the declaration is working its way through the Senate. In a Senate Health and Social Services Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, members of the public called in to give testimony on the possible extension.

Most of the callers spoke against extending the declaration, arguing, sometimes citing studies, that pandemic numbers had been exaggerated and the social and economic costs of shutting down the economy were more harmful. State health officials

Many of those who testified against extending the declaration accused the health care industry of misrepresenting COVID-19 in order to secure additional funding.

“I have serious concerns about persons from the health care industry giving testimony,” said Nancy Frederickson Pope, who called in from Palmer. “Health care industries and nonprofits are not acting in our best interest, our numbers here in Alaska are really low.”

Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, has been strongly opposed to extending the declaration and requested at the beginning of testimony all testifiers first declare any financial benefit from the emergency’s extension.

[House remains deadlocked. Here’s what that means for future legislation]

Several members of the public who testified accused the state of suppressing the use of therapeutics such as hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydroxychloroquine is typically used to treat malaria but the drug gained popularity after being promoted by then-President Donald Trump. The Associated Press reported last month the state of Oklahoma is trying to return $2 million worth of hydroxychloroquine after further studies showed the drug does little to combat COVID-19.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, thanked callers and said she agreed with many of them that the state is not in an emergency, pointing to DHSS documents which said the pandemic was being effectively managed.

“‘Effectively managed?’ That doesn’t sound like an emergency to me,” Hughes said.

DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum spoke on Tuesday’s panel and testified before the same Senate committee last week. Each time he told lawmakers the provisions in the declaration, particularly when it came to procurement processes, were one of the reasons the state’s response has been so effective.

Health care workers are just as exhausted by the pandemic as members of the public, said Shelley Ebenal, executive director of the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Association, and the extension of the emergency declaration would provide an element of certainty for workers.

Zulkosky, who works in the interim for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, told the Empire in a phone interview she had seen firsthand shortages of personal protective equipment and other supplies.

“I know there’s a lot of fatigue, but the virus really sets its own timeline,” she said. “The very least the legislature can do is give the tools that will provide certainty.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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