Alaska’s vaccine plan, testing mandate could be thrown into uncertainty if Legislature fails to act

Members of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee hear details about a bill to extend the state's COVID-19 disaster declaration on Feb. 2 in the Capitol. The members, from left, are Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, behind the plexiglass; Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; and Adam Crum, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
Members of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee hear details about a bill to extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration on Feb. 2 in the Capitol. The members, from left, are Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, behind the plexiglass; Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; and Adam Crum, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s pandemic disaster declaration expires this weekend, the state will lose a wide range of special powers to respond to COVID-19. At stake is everything from the state’s plan for distributing vaccines to the state requirement for many air travelers to be tested for the coronavirus. Legislative leaders want to avoid harming the state’s response to the pandemic, but they face obstacles to resolving the dilemma. 

Dunleavy has issued four disaster declarations for the COVID-19 public health emergency since last March — and the last is set to expire at the end of the day on Sunday. But his office said he can’t extend it this time without approval from the Legislature, which is in session for the first time since the original declaration came out. 

So his administration has put forward Senate Bill 56, which includes the extension. 

Heidi Hedberg, the director of the state Division of Public Health, said the disaster declaration gives the state the legal authority to distribute the vaccines, as well as some medical treatments for COVID-19. 

“We need the authorities from the public health emergency to allocate to the communities,” she said. “Without that authority, we are in a very precarious situation when the public health emergency expires.”

She said the state’s authority to prioritize vaccines for at-risk groups would also end if the declaration ends. She also said communities that do not have health powers will be left behind. 

Some consequences of the declaration ending are unclear. State health officials are still determining exactly what the state could legally do to distribute vaccines without the order. But they anticipate that without statewide mandates for testing related to air travel, there would be a patchwork of local restrictions. 

But even with high stakes, the declaration could expire. There are a couple of obstacles in the way. The most immediate is that the House cannot consider any legislation right now, because it hasn’t organized. It’s split 20-20 between two caucuses. There isn’t a permanent speaker to refer bills to committees. And there are no committees to refer bills to. 

Fairbanks Rep. Steve Thompson is the House Republicans’ pick to become speaker. He said the House may have to pass the measure after the declaration expires, and apply it retroactively to the expiration date.

“But there is pressure that it needs to be done,” he said on Friday. “That’s part of the reasons we were elected to come down here, was to do the state’s work. We have to address things, and that’s one of the items that I think is pretty important to everybody. And that’s another reason that we should get organized and do our work — what we were elected for.”

Dillingham independent Representative Bryce Edgmon is a leader of the other House caucus, which includes 15 Democrats, four independents and one Republican. On Tuesday afternoon, he said he and other legislative leaders were working with legal experts on an alternative to a bill. They were writing a document that Edgmon hopes a majority of House members would sign that would support the governor’s ability to extend the disaster. 

“Even if we were organized, at this point, we would be very challenged to get a bill through in time to meet the Feb. 14 deadline,” he said. “So we’re having to look at other avenues. And I think we’re going to be successful, at least to temporarily continue the disaster declaration.”

The unorganized House is just one obstacle to the extension. Another is that some legislators don’t agree with it. They’ve been hearing from constituents who are opposed to local mask mandates, school closures and restrictions on businesses, and who see the end of the state declaration as a step to returning things to normal. 

Anchorage resident Dean Cannon said he opposed extending the declaration at a recent Senate Health and Social Services Committee meeting. 

“The public are losing control over their lives and democracy under these emergency orders,” he said. “And many of us feel too much authority is collecting in unelected bodies.”

Cannon gave the state Department of Health and Social Services as an example. 

State officials said that the state declaration is a separate issue from what Anchorage or other municipalities have done. 

The potential problems extend beyond the state government. 

Along with giving the state specific powers spelled out in state law, the declaration also frees up hospitals and other health care providers to respond, according to Jared Kosin, the president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. He said federal waivers that allow hospitals to change emergency room procedures and make other changes due to the pandemic would end without the declaration. 

“If we lose the federal blanket waivers, the consequences will be real, and they will be significant,” he said.

Kosin gave examples of hospital responses that are only possible because of the declaration. 

“We have a hospital that constructed temporary walls around a COVID unit, altered entrances and egresses, has power supplies and cords in place,” he said. “All of these would be federal violations without the waivers being in place.”

Sharing hospitals’ concerns about the expiration are health care providers in rural Alaska. Alaska Native Health Board President Verné Boerner noted that Alaska Natives make up a disproportionate share of the COVID-19 cases and deaths. Contributing to the problem, she said, are crowded, multigenerational homes; a lack of running water and sanitation; and the distance from advanced medical care contribute. And she said ending the disaster declaration would add to that list.

“The public health emergency has been critical for helping us respond to and provide care to our members,” she said.

In addition, municipal leaders across the state are scrambling to understand the impact on their residents if the declaration expires. 

The arguments for the extension appear to be having an impact. Despite a majority of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee initially expressing skepticism, the committee voted to move the bill forward on Tuesday. The committee amended it so that the extension would end on March 15, rather than Sept. 30 as the governor had asked. 

Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, wants to limit the bill’s provisions. 

“We don’t want the people of Alaska thinking that the Senate is not going to support something that requires passage, because those tools are necessary,” he said. “It just may be far more narrow.”

The entire Senate could vote on the bill by the end of the week. 

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