Alaska Senate president has new view of COVID-19 threat after senior aide is hospitalized

Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, talks to Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, before the start of a floor session on Wednesday in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. On Thursday, Micciche talked about how his senior aide’s hospitalization with COVID-19 has given him a new perspective on the disease. (James Brooks/Anchorage Daily News via AP, Pool)

A senior aide to Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche has been hospitalized with COVID-19. Micciche said the illness has given him a new perspective on the threat the disease poses to the people working in the Capitol. 

Konrad Jackson became seriously ill from COVID-19 and has been at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau for several days. 

The hospital confirmed that Jackson is a patient but wouldn’t answer other questions.  Senator Micciche declined to identify Jackson by name. But he says watching a close aide and friend become ill has changed how he thinks about COVID-19. 

“When we had the spike of the cases in the building, it started to worry me,” said Micciche, a Soldotna Republican. “But … when it hits someone who I’m that close to, and I hear that person who is always upbeat, always positive, always, you know, raring to go, and you hear him struggling and you realize that we’re playing with people’s lives by not taking this seriously.”

He said there’s only one person in the Capitol who isn’t: Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold. On Wednesday, Micciche and other legislative leaders banned her from most parts of the Capitol until she starts complying with COVID-19 safety rules. 

Those rules require that everyone in the Capitol wear a facemask. She has worn a transparent face shield that doesn’t comply with that rule. 

The rules also require that everyone take a COVID-19 rapid test every four or five days and have their skin temperature screened every day they enter the Capitol. Reinbold hasn’t done that, either, according to legislative leaders.

Micciche said it’s frustrating.

“Deciding to not follow the rules and put people at risk for a few Facebook likes is not my idea of responsible behavior, especially when you’re willing to wear a mask to fly here, you’re willing to wear a mask to go on a school tour,” he said.

Reinbold wasn’t immediately available for an interview. She has defended her positions on social media and said she submitted negative test results to leadership. She has questioned the scientific and public health response to COVID-19 and has invited critics of the response to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chairs.

Micciche said he had a different view of COVID-19 before the session. 

“When they first made the rules, I thought they were over the top,” he said. “I’m from the Kenai, right? I mean, we’ve got the lowest case count for a large community in the state. We’ve been really low for a long time.”

Now he’s responsible for enforcing the rules. And he’s taking it seriously. 

“We’re going to do our part to get through this session, keeping people safe,” he said. “And if folks can’t follow the rules, they will not be here.”

Since Feb. 24, Rep. Mike Cronk, a Tok Republican, and six people who work in the building have tested positive. In addition, 22 people who had close contact with those who tested positive have had to be in quarantine. Currently, Jackson is one of seven staff members who are outside of the Capitol after either testing positive or having close contact with someone who has. 

Micciche said he and other legislative leaders are enforcing COVID-19 safety rules to protect staff members and their families. 

“You have people choosing between their parents or grandparents and their job,” he said. “This isn’t like anywhere else in Alaska. We are in a tight place and we’ve got a set of rules. And those rules are there to protect the people in the building and their families when they go home at night.”

Micciche said Jackson’s roommate works for a legislator who tested positive — the only one who has recently is Cronk. As soon as that legislator tested positive, Jackson stayed out of the Capitol, before he knew whether he had had close contact with anyone who was positive. But he still contracted the disease.

Micciche said Jackson is struggling, but he has been working on exercises to build up his lung strength. 

Micciche added that he’s praised the care at Bartlett. 

Bartlett has admitted 53 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past year, according to a hospital spokesperson. One patient has died while being treated by Bartlett. A total of five Juneau residents have died from the disease, including people who died outside of the city. 

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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