Back in March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared an emergency public health disaster for the state of Alaska. In May, the state Legislature extended the declaration until Nov. 15.
With that deadline looming, Dunleavy has not said whether he will extend the declaration.
“At this time, Governor Dunleavy is evaluating all options regarding a continuance of the state of emergency Alaska’s residents are facing and he will make a decision soon,” Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner wrote in an email.
Dunleavy could call the state Legislature to a special session to extend the declaration, or the Legislature could call itself into session.
In a flurry of letters between the governor’s office and Senate President Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, the governor’s chief of staff requested the latter option, but Giessel and Edgmon said they weren’t sure they would have the votes to do so.
Forty out of the 60 state legislators would have to agree to gather in order to bring the Legislature into session.
So, with a little more than a week remaining on the current declaration, it remains unclear whether it will be extended. What’s more clear is that losing it would be a problem for local governments and health providers who are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which does not appear to be slowing down.
Public health officials reported that 413 Alaskans tested positive for the virus on Wednesday. Kodiak has 36 active cases, and schools have moved online to slow the spread.
Having a disaster declaration in place unlocks certain capabilities for those in charge of handling COVID-19.
Mike Canfield, a spokesman for Providence Health and Services, pointed out several things that hospitals, including Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, can do with the declaration in place that they won’t be able to do if it expires.
One is that while the declaration is in place, the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), which administer Medicare and Medicaid, have waived certain requirements that are in place during normal times.
For instance, health care providers can screen patients off-site for COVID-19. They can set up additional surge-capacity areas away from the hospital.
There are scores more, waiving rules about construction, fire drills, record keeping and more. All are outlined in a 41-page document issued by CMS, and all aimed at allowing providers to be more agile during the pandemic.
State Senate Bill 241, which extended the declaration until Nov. 15, passed more flexibilities for health care providers.
It allows nurses and physicians who are licensed in other states to come to Alaska and help out immediately without having to pass new licensing exams. SB241 also allows doctors to practice more telehealth. In normal times, doctors must give a patient an in-person exam before using telehealth technology.
It isn’t a sure thing that these flexibilities would disappear if the declaration does. But it would be mostly uncharted territory thus far in the pandemic. Every state in the U.S. has some form of declaration in place except for Michigan, where the state Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could not extend her state’s declaration through executive order.
Health care providers are arguing that allowing the order to expire would introduce uncertainty at a bad time.
“The last thing we need is more uncertainty, and at this moment, Alaska’s health care system is uncertain whether it will lose the ability to use some or all of the flexibilities from CMS’ blanket waivers in the event that the State’s emergency declaration expires on November 15,” the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association wrote in a letter, signed by 13 hospital CEOs, to the governor on Oct. 22.
“All of this uncertainty will go away if the emergency declaration is extended, and we as providers can focus our energy on delivering health care for Alaskans in arguably their greatest time of need.”
There is concern among local leaders that allowing the emergency declaration to expire would send the wrong message to Alaskans.
“It carries a little more weight. … It gives us a little more credence when we say we’re in a state of emergency,” Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts said about the declaration.
That weight matters for a place like Kodiak, which is relying heavily on people to do their part to slow the spread of the virus.
For example, the Kodiak Area Emergency Services Council could, technically, pass a mandate requiring masks, Roberts said. But given the limited number of Kodiak police officers and Alaska State Troopers on the archipelago, enforcement would be difficult.
That means that pointing to the state’s emergency declaration and highly recommending masks is the path the ESC has chosen so far.