September was Alaska’s deadliest month of the COVID pandemic, state data shows

a row of cars lined up behind a sign that reads "covid-19 drive-thru testing"
Cars line up for drive-through Covid-19 testing on the Alaska Native Medical Campus on Aug. 24, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

September was the deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alaska so far, according to new data from the state health department. 

The state on Tuesday reported 65 more Alaskans have died of COVID. While some of the deaths came from death certificate reviews going back as far as April, most of them happened in the past few months during the surge of the highly contagious delta variant, said the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. 

The deaths reported Tuesday occurred in nearly all regions of Alaska. A Fairbanks man in his 20s died, and six Alaskans in their 30s from different parts of the state also died. Twenty-one of the deaths happened in the Mat-Su Borough. There was also a nonresident in her 70s who died in Valdez. 

With Tuesday’s report, the total number of Alaskans who died of COVID in September totaled 120. November 2020 is now the second deadliest month with 94 deaths. 

The state counts a death as tied to COVID-19 when a physician lists COVID as a cause of death on the person’s death certificate.

COVID-related hospitalizations also rose slightly since the state’s last report on Friday. By Tuesday, 213 people with COVID were hospitalized in the state, and 28 of them were on ventilators. 

The number of daily new cases among Alaskans, meanwhile, dropped over the last few days. The state reported 713 new cases on Friday, 998 on Saturday, 567 on Sunday, and 507 on Monday. 

An average of 11% of COVID tests have come back positive over the past week.

Also, nearly 60% of Alaskans age 12 and up are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

RELATED: Nearly all workers at Providence and Alaska Native health care system are complying with COVID vaccine mandates

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Petition filed to recall Assembly member Jamie Allard

Assemblywoman Jamie Allard at a Jan. 26, 2021 Anchorage Assembly meeting (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

A group is calling for the recall of Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard. This is the third recall effort of an Assembly member that Anchorage has seen in a year, with Felix Rivera surviving a recall election in April, and Meg Zaletel’s recall election scheduled for next week. 

In the petition filed to the Anchorage municipal clerk on Monday, the group cited four grounds for the recall of Allard who represents Chugiak/Eagle River. The first says that Allard used her Assembly email to reply to all Assembly members in response to a constituent. Petitioners say that’s a violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

RELATED: Tens of thousands of dollars are flowing into both sides of the Zaletel recall effort

The last three reasons describe Allard allegedly violating various health mandates that the Assembly put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They include being in an indoor gathering that was at more than 25% capacity, not wearing a mask in public, and her support of a rally that backed businesses that opened in defiance of then-mayor Berkowitz’s lockdown order. 

One of the grounds for recall is almost verbatim to one used to justify the recall of Zaletel.

The municipal clerk has 30 days to either deny or certify the petition. Alaska Public Media has reached out to Allard for comment.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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Alaska Gov. Dunleavy won’t endorse mask or vaccine mandates. But he says he won’t ban them either.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a news conference in downtown Anchorage last month. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

It’s a little more than a year from Alaska’s next gubernatorial election, and Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy would love to talk about some of the issues he ran on: crime rates (they’re down), jobs, his plans to boost the state’s energy industry.

But for now, the state remains in the grips of an intense, delta-driven surge of the coronavirus that’s stressed its hospitals and fueled a caustic public debate over a mask mandate in the state’s largest city. And a special session the governor called to address the Permanent Fund dividend and Alaska’s budget deficit is languishing.

Dunleavy spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz this week about the state of the pandemic, his relationship with lawmakers and the outlook for next year.

Listen to the interview (the voice that breaks in partway through is Jeff Turner, Dunleavy’s deputy communications director):

This transcript was edited for clarity and condensed.

Alaska Public Media: On the pandemic: We’ve got those hundreds of contracted workers who showed up to work at hospitals. Cases seem like they are at least plateauing, if not going down. Hospitals are still in crisis standards of care, and if you look at the numbers, we still have lots of cases compared to most other places in the country. How do you think we’re doing?

Mike Dunleavy: We’d love to see the cases come down, and the cases will come down. Back in early August, the most vaccinated state in the country, Vermont, experienced a 245% increase in cases, because the delta variant’s just much more infectious. So, we’re seeing a surge that other states have seen. We want the cases to come down; we believe the cases will come down here, sooner than later.

APM: Are we doing okay?

MD: We still have the fourth-lowest death rate per capita. We did have the third. Forty-six other states have done worse.
It’s a tough one, to say that when somebody dies, ‘Are we doing good?’ Our hospitals are holding, they have assistance. None of what we’re seeing is unnecessarily unanticipated. And I would say that we’re hanging in there, and we’ll get through this.

APM: You’ve been consistent in saying that mask mandates are a choice for local governments. But what would you say to people who see that their local governments, except for in Anchorage, are not doing that, it’s costing lives, and that a mandate is something the governor has the power to put into place — so why not do it?

MD: Government has a lot of power to do a lot of things in people’s lives, which I don’t necessarily believe is good. There are some people that believe that you need government to do the right thing. I have been in government for several years — government is not perfect. Government makes mistakes, as well. I actually thought we did really well with the pandemic, when it first started, because people did what they needed to do to take care of themselves. I don’t believe in mandates, especially putting something into someone’s arms. I know other people do. I don’t.

Dunleavy sits with his chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, at a news conference last month. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

APM: On the mask mandate, though: Is it not worth the potential reduction in spread that we would see to violate that principle?

MD: What would that reduction be? How much?

APM: I think the state and the municipality have said it’s significant, right?

MD: If everyone wore an N-95 (mask), and wore it properly in the right settings, I think you would see a significant reduction.

Related: Alaska doctors say masks work and some are better than others

APM: You’re not convinced that a mandate would be very effective?

MD: I don’t think so. And can you describe the mandate that Anchorage just passed? People are exempt? I don’t know — is there going to be enforcement?

APM: But wouldn’t you at least accept that probably it will result in more people wearing masks, even if it’s not a lot or everyone.

MD: Probably, but I don’t know. Probably.

APM: In Anchorage, it’s been a pretty difficult couple of weeks, I think, for the local government. Do you have a sense of what is driving the kind of toxic debate and discourse that’s gone on there?

Related: Incivility in Anchorage: Ex-Assembly members do not approve

MD: I think the media is part of it. I think social media is part of it. I think there are a number of things being discussed nationally that are polarizing people. I think there are good people that absolutely believe that their rights are in jeopardy. And I believe that there are good people that believe that certain mitigation efforts such as mask wearing will have some impact

APM: But you don’t really believe that at this point, that mask-wearing will have much of an impact?

MD: It depends on what kind of mask, in what setting, for how long and how well is it fitted. We did a mask 101, many months ago, with mask experts at one of our press conferences. You start with a parent teaching a kid to cover their face when they sneeze, right? That’s a mitigating attempt. Most of us would agree that that probably won’t stop a virus. But it helps deflect, and then you work your way up to a loose fitting cloth mask, all the way up. So, it depends on what you’re wearing.

APM: But generally speaking, the average mask that someone’s going to wear — there’s an idea that either that’s going to help or it’s not going to help. And it seems like you’re kind of backing away from the idea that generally speaking, more people in masks —

MD: Help do what though, is the question? Everyone says help. Help do what? Stop the virus? It won’t stop the virus. It will not stop the virus. Does it help if the guy wearing the mask is a truck driver that goes up and down the North Slope and nobody else is around him? I don’t see how that helps. You’re talking about everyone getting into a crowded room — you’re better off wearing an N-95 if you get into a crowded room. So, it’s a matter of degree.

APM: Okay. To go back to the previous question —

MD: Can I ask you a question? When I answer your question, sometimes you don’t like the answer. I mean, I’m just being polite. But if you have a better answer, you should substitute and say, ‘This was Dunleavy’s answer.’ Or, ‘This is the answer I think he should say.’

APM: I just think that, you know, the public health folks would say —

MD: The public health folks, their job is to look at every mitigating approach you could possibly do. And ideally, you would be wearing an N-95 and be 8 feet away from people. That would be ideal.

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APM: But I think that evidence also says that if you wear a cloth mask or a surgical mask, that’s still a lot better than not wearing a mask at all.

MD: It depends on your setting.

APM: If there’s a city requirement to wear a mask in a public space — that will reduce transmission?

MD: It may.

APM: It may?

MD: You’re absolutely right — it will reduce it by 67.5%. I’m sorry, 80%. How much would Dr. Zink tell you it will reduce it by? How much will it reduce it by?

APM: I don’t know.

MD: Right? Okay.

APM: But I think the point is, we don’t know, but presumably it’s a meaningful amount somewhere between zero and not 100, because we know they’re not 100%.

MD: I think whenever you have a barrier on your face when there’s a virus around, it could have an impact on reducing spread.

APM: Going back to the Anchorage discourse question, around what’s fueling the toxic discourse there. Is it all media? Is it specific media? Is it just social media, or is it media like me, or media like The Watchman and Must Read Alaska and The Blue Alaskan?

MD: I think all of it contributes. Prior to the internet and social media, you had printed media that was pretty static. Usually, the news was dated, because you had to deliver it. But now, it’s instant, all across the world. And there are numerous, too many to even name, how many different sites there are and groups and so forth. So, I think you have a plethora of opinions, interspersed with facts. I just think the whole thing has contributed to a huge questioning situation.

APM: Is there anything government can do to fix that situation?

MD: Government can’t fix everything. I don’t believe so.

APM: What kind of consideration are you giving, if any, to any kind executive action or legislative proposals to ban mask or vaccine mandates?

MD: None, at this time.

APM: Last COVID question: What are you hearing about ivermectin right now, and would you say that people should not be using that for COVID?

MD: I’ll never pose as a doctor and tell you what you should use or shouldn’t use. That should be between your doctor and the patient. There’s ivermectin for livestock. There’s ivermectin that is actually for human beings as well. That’s a decision between the doctor and the pharmacist and the patient.

Related: Alaska GOP politicians are lobbying the governor and pharmacy board for easier access to ivermectin

APM: Would you agree that the focus on ivermectin distracts from the usefulness of vaccines?

MD: No, I don’t think it does. All of these discussions, you can have. We’ve been through this before: I was infected. I got the vaccine.That’s one discussion. There’s other potential therapies. There’s monoclonals. So, no, I don’t think it distracts.

Dunleavy speaks to reporters at a political fundraiser last year. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

APM: If you got COVID, would you want ivermectin?

MD: Would I want it? I’d have to have a discussion with my doctor to see what was best. (You’re suggesting) it’s almost, like, I have this craving for ivermectin or something. I would just like to be able to know that I could get better if I got infected. That’s all.

Dunleavy’s communications aide, Jeff Turner, breaks in: It’s important to remember what the administration’s done on COVID. We now have 250 health care people coming up that were just licensed under the program that we announced a few weeks ago. So there’s that and other measures going on to address COVID. Those might be good things to bring up as well. It’s more than just face masks.

APM: The special session on the Permanent Fund seems to kind of be stalling out. There was an opinion piece the other day that basically said the governor has it backward with his fiscal plan: Locking in the Permanent Fund dividend and the Permanent Fund in the Constitution is the easy part. And the hard part is filling whatever the budget deficit is that we’re left with, if we go with your plan to divide Permanent Fund revenues 50-50 between government services and dividends. So: Where are the proposals that would give legislators confidence that you’re serious about filling that budget hole?

MD: You’re kidding me. You’re kidding me. You really don’t know where the proposals are? You haven’t seen the proposals, since we started introducing proposals in January of last year, and in subsequent special sessions, you’ve haven’t seen those proposals? We can get you — there’s probably a book that thick of proposals.

Related: Alaska lawmakers say they want compromise on PFD, but it’s unclear how they’ll get there

APM: So, basically, at this point, you feel like the Legislature has the tools in front of them?

MD: Yes, they do. They have the tools in front of them. They know the numbers. They just have to choose, as a Legislature, if they want to solve the issue with the tools that they have.

APM: Do you have the ability to knock heads together and bring everyone into a room and kind of push things forward yourself? Or is that not your job at this point?

MD: They’re having a very difficult time getting into a room with themselves right now. Our job is to lay out a budget and lay out a sustainable fiscal plan. We’ve done that. Our job is to do the research, when they ask for it. We’ve done that. Our job is to come up with as many ideas as possible, to put together a sustainable fiscal plan with all the components. We’ve done that. Our job is to provide them the environment for a special session. We’ve done that.

APM: So if Alaskans are frustrated that they haven’t seen more progress, is it your feeling that there’s really not that much more you could do, and the leadership at this point needs to come and is not coming from the Legislature?

MD: Yes. Yes. And if they don’t come up with a decision, that non-decision is a decision. That they prefer to have the situation that we have now.

APM: Do you see that changing over the next regular legislative session?

MD: I wish it changed in January. I wish it changed this summer. Alaska needs a sustainable fiscal plan. There’s nobody that argues that. What this really comes down to is whether the Permanent Fund and the Permanent Fund dividend are going to be permanent, or whether they’re subject to being spent on government programs. That’s what this comes down to.

APM: What do you feel like the chances are that we do get this resolved before the election this coming year?

MD: I have to remain optimistic. But there’s always the chance that they won’t want to resolve it. And then, the people of Alaska will have to decide if that’s the type of government that they want.

APM: There was that ruling from the federal judge last week, where he said those two psychiatrists had been unconstitutionally asked to resign. And he made a reference that you could be held personally liable. In retrospect, the fact that the request for resignations, at the start of your term, went out to a larger-than-usual group of employees after you were elected — was that a mistake?

MD: I don’t think so. No.

Related: Ex-Alaska Psychiatric Institute docs win federal court victory in challenge to Dunleavy ‘loyalty pledge’

APM: So, you feel like you guys will continue to fight that lawsuit?

MD: We’re having that discussion.

APM: What else do you want people to know?

MD: 500 health care workers are here. Our fiscals are actually looking very good for the state of Alaska. Our crime rates have plummeted over the last three years. I don’t know if I saw anything on that.

APM: Are you frustrated by the fact that people don’t seem to be acknowledging that stuff?

MD: No. I think there’s a lot of good things going on in Alaska. It’s all overshadowed by this virus, nationwide, and the politics nationwide. But there’s plenty of jobs if people want them.

APM: Do you have a sense of when the pandemic will —

MD: (joking) December 1, it will end. No, but you raise a very good question. Let me answer it. This pandemic is not going to ‘end.’ Okay? This pandemic is in many mammal species now. Denmark had to destroy millions of mink because there was a spread going back and forth, transmission. So, people need to realize that we’re going to have to live with this pandemic, this virus. We have the mitigating approaches that I think give us the upper hand. But it’s going to be with us. And, as I mentioned, it’s just a matter of time before everyone has the antibodies, either through infection or vaccination.


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Who needs to wear a mask in Anchorage and where? Here’s a breakdown of the new ordinance.

A sign outside of Title Wave Books on Aug. 30, 2021, in Anchorage encourages customers to wear face masks. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly on Thursday overturned Mayor Dave Bronson’s veto of an emergency mask ordinance. 

That means the masking rules for the city are back in place.

Here’s a breakdown of who needs to wear a mask now and where. 

Who does the mandate impact?

Most people.

The ordinance says: “All individuals must wear masks or face coverings over their noses and mouths when they are indoors in areas which are open to the public or which are communal spaces shared with other individuals not from one’s household.” 

People can wear a face shield instead of a mask if they can’t tolerate a mask due to a mental or physical disability, if they’re communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing or if they are doing an activity that can’t be done safely with a mask on, like a driver experiencing foggy glasses or a dental patient receiving care, says the ordinance.

Are there any exemptions to the mandate?

There are several. And they include: 

• Children under the age of 5 don’t need to wear a mask in public places, though face coverings are recommended for kids over the age of 2. 

• Anyone who’s incarcerated, in police custody or in a courtroom is exempt from the masking requirements. 

• If you are presenting, performing, or communicating to an audience, you don’t need to wear a mask as long as you’re 10 feet away from the audience, and the audience is fully masked. 

• If you’re doing an activity that can’t be conducted safely with a mask on, you’re also exempt. 

• The mayor’s team is exempt.

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What about at work?

You don’t need to wear a mask if you’re in an enclosed workspace or you are working alone in an unenclosed space. 

You also don’t have to wear a mask if you’re in an enclosed workspace with multiple individuals who are all vaccinated. The space must be separate from the public and other unvaccinated employees. 

What if someone is disabled? 

If you aren’t able to tolerate a mask due to a physical or mental disability, you’re exempt from the mask ordinance. “The individual’s or a guardian’s statement that they are exempted is sufficient evidence,” the ordinance says. 

What about while I’m at the gym or playing sports? 

You don’t need to wear a mask. But gyms or school district buildings may have their own individual mask rules. The Anchorage School District, for instance, requires masking in all of its buildings.

Also, if you’re a spectator at a sporting event, you must wear a mask under the ordinance. 

How about church? 

If you’re at church or some other kind of religious assembly, you are exempt from the mandate. 

Read the full emergency ordinance here.

As a business owner, how does the mandate affect me?

Businesses must deny entry to anyone not in compliance with the mask mandate, according to the ordinance. Employers are also required to make sure that their employees are masked when required, under the ordinance, and that they have access to masks. 

How long does the masking ordinance last?

The mandate will last no more than 60 days, unless extended by a vote of the Assembly. 

But there are two ways the masking rules could end sooner:

•  The rate of COVID-19 transmission in Anchorage drops below a high rate — as defined by the Centers for Disease Control — for 14 consecutive days.

• Two of the three hospitals in the city are not operating at a crisis standard of care for 14 consecutive days. Those hospitals: Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Regional Hospital and the Alaska Native Medical Center.

How is the mask mandate enforced?

That is a little less clear. 

While a previous Assembly proposal, AO 2021-91, laid out a series of fines for violations of the mandate, the emergency ordinance approved by the Assembly does not have any language related to fines. The only thing it says about enforcement is, “the Municipality reserves the right to use all available enforcement options to assure compliance with this Emergency Ordinance.” 

Another change in the new ordinance: There’s no language about citizen enforcement of the mandate. In an amendment to the previous proposal, AO 2021-91, there would’ve been a pathway for citizens to report people or businesses that weren’t complying with the mask rules. It received a lot of criticism, with opponents stating that it would encourage animosity between neighbors.

The emergency ordinance has no such citizen enforcement language.

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2 members of Anchorage mayor’s administration test positive for COVID, canceling Friday’s meeting

girls sing in solidarity
A group of girls testifying in opposition to the proposed Anchorage mask mandate lead a crowd in singing the National Anthem on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The Anchorage Assembly canceled Friday’s meeting after members came into close contact on Thursday with two members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration who tested positive for COVID-19. (Wesley Early/AKPM)

Two members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting Anchorage Assembly leadership to cancel their Friday meeting, according to a statement from the Assembly.

The Bronson administration told the Assembly on Friday that all members present at Thursday’s meeting have come into “really close contact” with the two individuals who tested positive, said the Assembly’s statement. 

RELATED: Conflict erupts between Bronson and Assembly on sixth night of combative mask testimony

The Assembly and Bronson administration have not named the two city employees, but a spokesman for the mayor said they were both senior members of the administration. Both of them were vaccinated, the mayor’s spokesman, Corey Allen Young, said.

The positive COVID-19 cases come as the state is entrenched in one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, and as the Anchorage Assembly continues to hear days of combative public testimony about a proposed mask mandate. 

RELATED: Amid one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Anchorage officials say they’re rationing testing

Thursday’s meeting was the sixth day of comments. Assembly members Meg Zaletel, Pete Petersen, Chris Constant and Austin Quinn-Davidson all attended the meeting by phone. Other members attended in person. Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy, members who represent Eagle River/Chugiak, did not wear masks. The majority of Bronson’s team was also without masks during the meeting, as was most of the audience. 

Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard addresses the rest of the Assembly, concerned that she would not be allowed to ask questions of the public. She’s seated by municipal manager Amy Demboski (left) and Mayor Dave Bronson. (Wesley Early/AKPM)

Hundreds of people have participated in recent Assembly meetings.

On Thursday, many of the attendees were children, who did not wear masks, brought to testify against the proposed masking ordinance. Some were too young to be vaccinated. Adam Trombley, the director of the office of economic and community development, removed a plexiglass barrier on the dais where people stood to testify.

RELATED: Discord over masks escalates with arrests, Holocaust comparisons at the Anchorage Assembly

crowd raises hands
Christine Hill raises her hands in support of public testimony opposed to the proposed Anchorage mask mandate on Oct. 7, 2021. (Wesley Early/AKPM)

Both Bronson and the Assembly released statements late Friday afternoon about the COVID-19 infections.

“The senior administration is following Municipality of Anchorage COVID-19 protocols and will not be attending tonight’s scheduled Assembly meeting in person,” said Bronson’s statement. 

The Assembly’ statement said: “Even though most Assembly members were wearing masks and are vaccinated, and thus are more protected from contracting COVID-19, Assembly leadership feels it is in the best interest of the safety of the public, staff, administration, and Assembly members to cancel tonight’s continued meeting.” 

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Amid one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Anchorage officials say they’re rationing testing

a medical professional swabs a driver's nostril
Jose Urrutia gets a nostril swab in August at one of Anchorage’s free COVID-19 testing sites. City officials say they’re scaling back hours at those sites because of a budget shortfall. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage health officials say a budget shortfall is forcing them to ration COVID-19 testing while the city endures one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

A spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson said the administration plans to ask the city Assembly for additional cash “in the near future.” But for now, it’s scaling back its testing contractor’s hours at multiple sites around the city, with reductions totaling 108 hours a week, the contractor said.

Technically, Anchorage’s purchase order with its testing provider, California-based Visit Healthcare, runs through the end of October. But the city is paying a flat rate of $98 a test, and amid Alaska’s delta variant-driven surge, demand has been so high that without the reduced hours, Bronson’s administration would have exhausted its appropriation from the Assembly by Oct. 18, according to Acting Health Director Joe Gerace.

“When we extended the contract, things were very slow,” Gerace said. “Nobody foresaw the delta variant cranking testing numbers up to 1,500 a day.”

Gerace said the latest contract extension, valued at some $7.5 million, was for 90 days. That would mean it started in early August — just as Alaska’s current surge began to take hold, and as hospital administrators warned that their capacity was being stretched.

RELATED: Anchorage’s multi-million-dollar testing, vaccination contracts in limbo as Bronson administration considers its options

News of the reduced hours, which begin Friday, quickly caused anxiety and frustration among some residents and city Assembly members — with some critics speculating that the cuts to testing stemmed from a deliberate effort by Bronson’s administration to suppress Anchorage’s case counts.

“Rationing tests during the highest COVID rates we’ve seen in our community since the pandemic began is dangerous,” Assembly Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said in a message. “It’s also unnecessary. If the mayor and his team need an additional appropriation, I’m certain the Assembly would take swift action to approve that appropriation to protect public health.”

The city’s positivity rate, at roughly 10%, is already high, and some Assembly members and medical experts say Anchorage should be doing more testing, not less.

The mayor, a conservative elected earlier this year, has questioned scientists’ and doctors’ coronavirus guidance. And he’s blamed vaccine mandates, not the virus, for the stress on the city’s health care system — though data released by Alaska hospitals show that very few workers, so far, have been fired for refusing the shots.

Related: Anchorage Mayor Bronson says he won’t push masks or vaccines, hires new top doc

Bronson’s health department has also experienced substantial turnover since he was sworn in July 1: Its public health manager resigned last week, and its epidemiologist and longtime infectious disease specialist both left their jobs during the summer.

In a call with reporters late Thursday afternoon, Gerace said there’s no effort to suppress the city’s case counts and that instead, officials are trying to ensure that testing can continue while remaining available to the people who most need it.

The city is also trying to tighten its criteria for testing and, in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, discouraging it for asymptomatic, vaccinated people who haven’t had extended close contact with an infected person.

“People that are fully vaccinated shouldn’t be getting tested just because someone in the office walked by,” Gerace said.

“We don’t want people not to go get tested,” he added. “The piece we really want to make sure is that the people that need the test have those services available to them.”

Anchorage officials also pointed out that other testing options are available.

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At a state-funded testing site at the Alaska Airlines Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, there were no lines Thursday, and Anchorage School District officials also reminded families that it has six sites open for staff, students and household members who either have COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to infected people.

Nonetheless, a number of Anchorage Assembly members questioned the idea of scaling back city-sponsored testing during the middle of the current surge.

Cars in a line with a person in a blue gown talking to someone through the window
Cars waiting in line for a COVID-19 test at a city-sponsored site at Anchorage’s Loussac Library this week (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

All three of Anchorage’s hospitals are currently operating under crisis standards of care, as the extra-contagious delta variant has filled intensive care units and stressed staffing and bed space.

“If there’s a reduction in hours, it seems to make very little sense. Especially since many Assembly members, at the behest of the community, just advocated for expanded services, since lines were spanning parking lots and it was taking hours to get a test,” said Assembly Member Meg Zaletel. “We know, with the current high transmission rate of COVID in our community, testing needs to be readily accessible and convenient so people will use it.”

She added: “We’ve got to have COVID testing right now, more than ever, and reducing that service doesn’t make sense to me.”

Related: Alaska activates emergency crisis protocols in 20 health care facilities

With Visit Healthcare’s testing contract set to expire at the end of the month, the company, in a prepared statement from Chief Development Officer Emily Oestreicher, said it hopes to continue its work.

“Visit Healthcare has no intention of discontinuing its contract with the Municipality of Anchorage nor have we been informed about any plans by the municipality to do so,” she said, adding that the company has tested and vaccinating thousands of people in the city. “We are proud to have made a significant impact on the safety and well-being of this community.”

But Bronson administration officials say they’re examining whether to change Anchorage’s testing program to be more efficient.

Coronavirus testing is reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. But that’s the case only if the testing program is “fair and equitable” and complies with CDC guidelines, Gerace said.

The city also has to pay the initial bills for testing before FEMA issues its reimbursement, which can take up to a year, Gerace added. Based on the state’s contract for testing at UAA, Gerace said, he suspects that the city’s current rate of $98 a test is roughly $35 too high.

“The point of RFPs is to make sure the city’s getting the best bang for its buck,” he said. “And that’s the piece no one is talking about.”

Gerace has said that any new testing plans, or an extension of Visit Healthcare’s contract, will have to be introduced at next week’s Assembly meeting to leave members adequate time to approve it before the existing contract expires.

No proposal was on the meeting’s agenda when it was released Wednesday, though it could be added in the coming days.

In an email, a spokesman for Bronson, Corey Allen Young, said that a supplemental appropriation request will be submitted to the Assembly soon.

“Until supplemental funding is secured, the Municipality of Anchorage is actively managing our current resources to continue testing through the end of the month,” he said.

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Healing together: Alaskans share experiences overcoming trauma

Trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next, but so can healing. Alaska Public Media’s Jeff Chen has a story about how Rita Pitka Blumenstein’s impact continues to shine, even after her death.

The pandemic has made many of us feel isolated within our own communities — often leading to severe impacts to our mental health. A group called Nesian Lounge formed recently in Alaska to connect young Pacific Islanders with one another to have difficult conversations. Here’s a look at how they formed so that they could address important issues in their communities.

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Denali Borough to require masking in schools

A blocky school house with a circular logo.
Denali Borough School District officials have halted in-classroom instruction at Tri-Valley Valley School and the Denali Borough School District’s two other schoolhouses for at least one week. (Credit Denali Borough)

Beginning Monday, the Denali Borough School District board will again require everyone who enters a district building to wear a facemask to curb the spread of coronavirus. The district school board adopted the policy Tuesday over the opposition of some area residents.

School board members voted 7-to-2 to require universal masking, with Kristen Randall and Nikki DeMers dissenting.

The board voted after several people spoke. Some voiced strong opposition, while others supported the policy. Opponents include Tri-Valley Fire Department Chief Rob Graham, who suggested the pandemic may be overblown because he’s never transported a patient who was known to be COVID-positive. He said those who’ve been advising the district to mandate masks aren’t motivated by a concern for public health.

“I’d also like to make you guys realize that like, those people that come in here and talk about that, they’re getting paid with COVID dollars,” Graham said. “And so they’re pushing that agenda.”

Residents who support the facemask mandate include Emily Tuttle, a businessperson and mother who said she withdrew her child from a district school because its policy made the wearing of facemasks optional.

“Masking is most effective when every person wears one,” Tuttle said.

Superintendent Dan Polta said in an interview Thursday that those who spoke during the sometimes-heated public testimony all have strong feelings about the issue. And he said that all are motivated by a common desire for their children to have the best education possible in a safe environment.

“I believe everybody wants that for their children,” he said. “And I hold that when I hear their comments — whether they’re angry, whether they’re vitriolic, whether they’re kind.”

Polta said he’s been talking with school district officials in Anchorage and Fairbanks on how they’ve managed facemask requirements. And he’s now working on details of the facemask policy that he said will be much like the one the Healy-based school district had last school year. For example, whether to require athletes to wear facemasks during practices and competition.

“Last year, we were not masking during our games,” he said. “And so I need to kind of take a look and go ‘Would we continue that practice? Would we go back to a more stringent practice of requiring the masks during games?’ ”

Polta says board members who voted for universal face masking cited the surge in COVID cases statewide that’s filled Alaska’s hospitals and reduced care for all patients. He said the members hope when they review the policy in November, the surge will have subsided.

“We think that could be different,” he said, “and we also really believe that in November we’ll also most likely have that vaccine availability for kids 5 to 11.”

The board’s decision makes Denali Borough schools the second rural district in the Interior to require facemasks, the other being the Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District. Elsewhere in the Interior, the Delta Junction-based Delta Greely School District is maintaining its policy of recommending but not requiring facemasks, despite a sharp rise in COVID cases over the past couple of weeks.

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JBER declares public health emergency amid COVID surge

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Military leaders on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage have declared a public health emergency and encouraged all personnel to avoid places that do not require masks or social distancing in response to increasing COVID-19 cases in Alaska, officials said.

“We’ve all seen COVID-19 cases continue to spread rapidly across our nation, the state of Alaska and in our local community,” U.S. Air Force Col. Kirsten Aguilar, 673d Air Base Wing and JBER commander, said in a statement Friday. “After close consultation with JBER mission commanders, I have decided to declare a Public Health Emergency.”

Aguilar said the declaration will remain in effect for 30 days, but could be shortened or extended based on cases and community transmission of COVID-19.

RELATED: Alaska ICU doctor provides a glimpse behind the walls

The base has also transitioned to Health Protection Condition Bravo, which means Aguilar will be able to implement additional measures to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

“If the situation continues to worsen, additional measures to protect the force will be implemented, including restricting access to off-base establishments,” the statement said.

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Hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases across the state have increased as a result of the highly contagious delta variant. Alaska on Friday reported more than 1,200 newly confirmed cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University.

More than 411,000 people, or 56% of the state population, has received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 357,000 people, or 49% of the state population, are fully vaccinated.

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