Gov. Mike Dunleavy declined requests from legislators and health care providers to order a 30-day extension of a state health care emergency declaration that expired late Saturday.
The governor said Sunday the health emergency has eased with more Alaskans being vaccinated and hospitalizations dropping, and that the declaration is no longer needed.
“We’re no longer an emergency. We’re in recovery,” the governor said in a press conference.
There are still new infections, however, and health officials are worried that potentially dangerous variants of the virus will show up in Alaska. State Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum was supportive of the new direction from his boss.
“However, we’re going to be missing some of the tools we had,” when the health emergency declaration was in effect, Crum said in the press conference.
Meanwhile, the expiration has created major regulatory uncertainties for hospitals, long-term care facilities and clinics as they continue to deal with the pandemic. Health providers need waivers from multiple federal rules to be able to respond with flexibility to the pandemic, but federal agencies require a state health emergency declaration to be in place to grant waivers.
“It’s a mess. Hospitals and nursing homes are trying to figure out what they can and can’t do,” now that the state emergency health declaration has expired, said Jared Kosin, executive director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.
The waivers are needed so that hospitals can mobilize satellite medical facilities off-site and even do drive-through COVID-19 testing. One Anchorage hospital is reported to have already closed one of its remote drive-through test sites in the city.
There are also major concerns as to expanded telehealth for medical conditions and behavioral health counseling can be offered without the federal waivers, and whether streamlined licensing for critical care workers like nurses can be continued.
Health providers are worried, too, whether employees will be allowed to continue working from home, Kosin said. Without waivers even support workers not engaged in direct care may have to be physically present in hospitals, potentially exposing more to the virus.
Dunleavy had actually proposed a long-term extension of the emergency declaration, until the fall. in legislation. However, with the state House not organized the Legislature can’t pass a bill. The only other option was for the governor himself to order an extension. The governor declined to do this.
The governor said Sunday that the requirement for on-arrival COVID-19 tests at airports is dropped, to be replaced by a recommendation. Tests will still be given at airports but they will be voluntary, he said. But with the mandate dropped many arriving airline passengers won’t bother with tests, so infected people, and possibly those infected with one of the new, dangerous virus variants will be unknown to state health officials.
“Our state’s biggest advantage in battling the pandemic is our geographic isolation and, until Sunday, our closed border,” with a COVID-19 test required on arrival at airports,” Kosin said. “Why would anyone throw that advantage away?” he asked.
Dunleavy also said Sunday that municipalities like Anchorage that have health powers will still be able to issue mandates and restrictions on businesses.
Meanwhile, the governor issued a directive to commissioners and state employees to continue following all policies regarding COVID-19 that were in place under the COVID-19 disaster declaration expired Feb. 14.
Over the next several weeks, commissioners will review which state policies are still necessary, and which he should allow to lapse, the governor said. This does not address the federal regulations and the waivers from those, however.
The administration is also issuing four health advisories that address general safety, travel and critical infrastructure, with appendices focusing on the seafood industry.
“Make no mistake about it, the virus may be with us for some time. But the data shows that the worst is most likely behind us,” Dunleavy said.
“Alaska’s vaccination plan is one of the most successful in the country and we have faith that the health care system is robust and prepared,” the governor said.