GOVERNOR FACES THE NEXT STORM

By March 16, there were 52 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Alaska, and the first Alaskan had just died of the coronavirus. The case load was just about to spike. Between March 17 and 23, more than 100 cases of COVID were diagnosed across the state, mainly in urban areas.

By now, Gov. Mike Dunleavy was closing state-operated facilities like libraries and museums, and suspending public programs. Residential school programs were told to send students back to their home communities. Mayors in some communities took even more drastic actions.

The case count kept growing and by March 31, there were 187 active cases of coronavirus, 66 had recovered, and four Alaskans had died. That was the peak of the first viral storm for Alaska, and by then personal protective gear for medical providers was a problem all over the country, including Alaska, to the point where the joint commission that governs hospital standards issued a statement saying health care workers could bring their own masks to work from home, and use whatever PPE they could get their hands on.

These were unusual times for a field that is highly regulated. Alaska was by no means fully prepared.

Mask-makers all over the state were busy sewing masks, trying to keep up with the demand by medical professionals and first responders, as well as those with public-facing jobs.

Also unusual: At the governor’s request, distilleries begin making hand sanitizer, which was in short supply. They were suddenly pumping out hundreds of gallons of the virus-destroyer.

Fairbanks had emerged as a “hot spot” for the spread. So had Ketchikan, and cases were popping up in Juneau. Gov. Dunleavy and his team were working 20 hours a day, by now.

“There were times when we’d just stop and look at each other and realize, ‘Seattle is falling apart. They’re dying left and right like Italy. We have to make decisions. We can sit here like sitting ducks, or we can make some changes pretty fast and save this place’,” Dunleavy said.

At one point, Seattle was even asking Alaska hospitals for help, he said.

Dunleavy has a great deal of respect for the team that helped lead through the storm. Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, was tough, but he said she understood that while her focus was to be on health, his focus had to be on the entire health of the state — including the economic well-being of Alaska. The state could not endure an indefinite lockdown, and he would not allow it to go on long.

But he also knew that no matter what the outcome, the person at the helm takes the blame for what goes wrong.

“I told my people back in January, ‘We won’t survive this politically. If it’s a nothing-burger, and people survive, we will be crucified. If we don’t act fast enough, we will be crucified. We just have to do the best we can to maintain our health care system,’” Dunleavy said. “That’s our responsibility. We told people we needed time to build up our health care capacity, and we did that.”

Now, on May 22, it seems like a lifetime since Dunleavy and his team warned Alaskans to stock up on their prescription medications and prepare to hunker down. Dunleavy has now declared the state reopened.

Some communities will lag, such as Anchorage, which is governed by a mayor who follows his own political compass.

Western Alaska communities that are starting the fishing season will also have their own rules, Dunleavy said. Next week, Samaritan’s Purse will open a field hospital in King Salmon to be ready for a possible outbreak.

It is up to Alaskans to take personal responsibility to guard their health and their families from infection.

“We’re going to have to live with this virus. We’ve now got the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage set up, with 150 beds ready. We’ve got response teams to go out to rural Alaska and pull people out by helicopter if needed,” Dunleavy said. “But we need to manage this in our lives.”

Every night, Dunleavy thinks about the business community and the misery they have endured. He knows it’s an economic disaster that is just beginning. He sees it in the tourism businesses struggling to stay alive in hopes of a better year next year. He hears about it from business owners, many of whom are his friends and supporters.

There will be another surge of virus, and maybe another one after that until an effective vaccine is available, Dunleavy said. The surges will not care that there’s an economic crisis afoot.

Now that he has lifted nearly all of the mandates, Alaskans should brace themselves for clusters of cases to pop up.

Meanwhile, nearly every state is going through the same disaster — Hawaii, which has an economy dependent 100 percent on tourism, is in big trouble, Dunleavy said. He hears about the other states on phone calls with the White House and other governors: Boston is on the verge of having its hospital system collapse. In North Dakota and Texas, the oil economy has decimated the economies.

“In conversations with other governors, it’s the same kind of story. They’re in bad shape, like we are in Alaska,” he said. “California just cut $18 billion from their education budget — and yet some in our own Legislature was trying to figure out how to override my vetoes.”

Dunleavy hinted that he has some tough management decisions ahead for state government. Even with federal funds, the price of oil is far beneath what is needs to be to pay for the fiscal year ahead.

“This story is far from over. We are facing great economic perils,” Dunleavy said.

But he’s done with closures; the state and the people of Alaska have taken all they can bear of the mandates. The world will have to figure out how to move forward with this virus for some time to come.

“We can’t shut down again,” he said.

Read Part 1 of this story at this link:

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