Update — On July 28, 2020, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that starting August 11th, nonresident travelers to the state will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test.
There’s a lot to keep track of when it comes to COVID-19 and Alaska’s response to the pandemic. Reporters all over the state are talking to experts and local Alaskans every day about the impact the virus is having on our lives. And still, there are questions. Lots and lots of unanswered questions. We’re trying to tackle your COVID-19 questions weekly.
The state health mandate that requires a 14-day quarantine for people who arrive from out-of-state was set to expire Tuesday, June 2. On Friday, it was extended until June 5 and starting that day, visitors and Alaskans returning to the state will be asked to take a test within 72 hours of boarding an Alaska-bound flight.
Dunleavy and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink have credited the mandate with helping to keep Alaska’s rate of infections among the lowest in the country. But there’s a lot we don’t know about how the new testing system will work.
This post answers questions about the state’s mandatory quarantine, how effective it’s been and how it has been enforced these past few weeks. KRBD’s Eric Stone provided the reporting.
Q: Can you explain how the quarantine process has worked?
Passengers arriving from out of state have been required to fill out a travel declaration form listing the places they’ve visited in the past two weeks, the address where they’ll serve out their 14-day quarantine and some contact information.
The forms are sent to the state Department of Health and Social Services, but they’re not shared with local municipalities. And the kicker here is this: since most larger cities have their own police forces, that means local police — who would, presumably, enforce the quarantine — don’t know exactly who should be in quarantine. Ketchikan’s city attorney called it “nonsensical”.
The governor announced a big change to the system on Friday. Now, travelers can bypass the quarantine requirement if they’ve been tested for COVID-19 up to three days before their flight. And people who don’t get tested before they fly to Alaska — or lose their paperwork — may be tested as they once they get here. Of course, they’re not going to make you get tested, so you still have the option of a two-week quarantine. And if they run out of testing supplies, and you don’t have your test results, you’ll have to quarantine.
Now, will local municipalities know who’s been tested and who should be in quarantine? We don’t know for sure. We don’t have a lot of details on the new policy yet. But if the past is any guide, it seems unlikely.
Q: How many people have been charged with violating the mandatory 14-day quarantine required after interstate travel? — Shaun Ann Graham, Anchorage
Depending on how you count, it’s one or none — as far as we know.
Duane Fields was released from prison in California and ordered to quarantine in an Anchorage hotel, according to federal charges. Fields disputes that — he says his release paperwork listed his mother’s address. It’s important to note, though, that these are federal contempt of court charges, not state charges. It’s not the state charging Fields with violating the quarantine mandate; it’s a federal judge saying Fields didn’t abide by a court order. That’s a wonky distinction, but it’s important. As far as state charges, I haven’t heard of anyone in Alaska who’s been charged with breaking quarantine.
Q: Health mandate 10, which is the one that covers the quarantine, carried a fine of up to $25,000. Has anyone actually been fined that amount? Or any amount?
It sounds like no one has been fined for breaking quarantine. Duane Fields told Alaska Public Media he planned to fight his contempt of court charges. And of course, you can’t be fined until you’re convicted.
As far as enforcement on a state level…
“Really what we’re trying to do is educate people on what the health mandates are and what individually they need to be doing,” is what Department of Public Safety spokesperson Megan Peters said back in April.
She confirmed in an email on June 1 that state troopers are sticking with that approach. And that’s been the consistent message from state officials. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said last month that he didn’t want to use a “heavy hand” when enforcing health mandates. I reached out to the law enforcement agencies across the state recently, and everyone I spoke with told me they hadn’t issued any fines for breaking quarantine.
Q: When people obtain waivers to by-pass the two week quarantine, is there any follow up with them to ensure they remain symptom free? — Thea Nelson, Juneau
Not everyone who enters the state is subject to the quarantine mandate. Employees traveling to work in critical infrastructure activities outlined by the state — think healthcare, mining, oil and gas — may or may not have to quarantine. Companies were allowed to file mitigation plans with the state that outline what measures they’re taking to prevent the spread of the virus.
Take ConocoPhillips, for example: according to documents obtained by CoastAlaska and Alaska Public Media, their plans have changed over time. At first, North Slope employees from out of state were quarantining in an Anchorage hotel for two weeks. More recently, their plans changed. Now, out-of-state workers take a 14-day “protective period” on the slope. They have to wear a mask and gloves, eat alone in their rooms, take their temperature twice a day and monitor for symptoms, but it appears less restrictive than quarantining in an Anchorage hotel.
Their plan says that if an employee has cold- or flu-like symptoms, “medical consultation with the [ConocoPhillips Alaska] Medical Officer and Alaska State Office of Epidemiology will occur.”
Send us your questions — big and small, serious and trivial — about the pandemic in Alaska and we’ll send a reporter or expert out to find the answer.
Update: A previous version of this story stated that the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers was set to expire on June 2. The mandate was extended until June 5, when the new testing requirement takes effect. The story has been updated.