Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a statewide emergency declaration Wednesday morning just hours after the World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 a global pandemic.
“We don’t have any positive cases as of this moment but we are anticipating that’s going to change,” Dunleavy told reporters in a Wednesday morning press briefing, adding that the declaration will free up additional state resources as well as secure federal dollars to address the outbreak. “We’ve been in contact with legislative leadership and explained the situation to them.”
The administration confirmed that Alaska will be receiving an initial $4.9 million in federal funding to address the situation.
The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that the global count for confirmed cases of COVID-19 is 118,326 and 4,292 deaths — the majority of which have occurred in China.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of Wednesday there were 938 confirmed or presumed positive cases in the United States and 29 related deaths. Also as of Wednesday, Alaska has tested 60 cases, most of which have come back negative and 14 of which are still under investigation.
State Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told reporters Wednesday morning it is highly probable Alaska will see cases of COVID-19 in the near future.
“A particular concern is California and Washington (who are seeing increased cases) because of their proximity to Alaska,” Crum said.
The governor’s declaration also allows Crum to exercise state statutes related to isolation and quarantine measures, though the governor noted Wednesday morning that the state is not there yet.
“What we’re asking for is that Alaskans be just a little more diligent in their habits,” Dunleavy said, suggesting regular hand washing as well as social distancing. “When we get to a point where we need to mandate changes such as school closures, we’ll do that. But we’ll have that conversation with Alaskans and let Alaskans know when that is necessary.”
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink told reporters that the situation is rapidly changing and she expects that Alaska will see cases soon. Until then, she urged residents to take small steps to minimize risks including regular hand washing, social distancing, avoiding hand shaking, avoiding large gatherings, avoiding travel and avoiding sick individuals.
“The CDC has come out with an additional list of chronic health conditions that may put individuals at further risk,” Zink said, noting the state will be issuing guidance to long-term care facilities across the state on how to best protect elderly and ailing individuals.
Washington state issued a mandate Wednesday banning all large gatherings over 250 people. Dunleavy noted that Alaska has not reached the point of issuing mandates on gatherings yet, but urged residents to avoid any large gatherings if at all possible.
He also followed up with a plea for residents to avoid panic buying, a practice which has plagued grocery stores with empty shelves across the country.
“This is not the time to run out and buy cartloads of toilet paper or empty all the beans off the shelf. We have no indication that there will be disruption in goods coming to Alaska,” Dunleavy said.
This is Dunleavy’s first emergency declaration as governor. Former Gov. Bill Walker declared two emergency declarations during his tenure as governor to address the state’s opioid crisis and in response to the November 2018 magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska.
The Alaska Legislature approved $4.1 million in state funding Wednesday afternoon for the state to put toward mitigation and containment efforts for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19.) The bill also allows for the receipt of $9 million in federal funding.
This will allow the hiring of five public health nurses, three nurse epidemiologists, one microbiologist in Fairbanks to assist with lab testing and one emergency manager to assist in the Emergency Operations Center. The funding also includes $1.3 million for transportation of the elderly and those in need of medical and mental health services to state facilities.
The funding passed unanimously through the Senate. The House passed the funding 36-2. Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman and North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax voted against the emergency funding.
The Legislative Council has also organized an emergency management subcommittee to address whether the House and Senate should adjourn the session early.
Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens is a member of the committee and told reporters the central goal of the Legislature is to pass the budget. In an emergency, all other bills can wait.
“We’ve got to pass a budget. That’s the one requirement in the constitution,” he said. “And the second requirement is — or not necessarily a requirement, but a responsibility — is to make sure that we confirm the governor’s appointments or not.”
A 2006 voter initiative set the legislative session limit to 90 days but lawmakers can extend up to 121 days according to the constitution. If deemed necessary, the subcommittee could suggest the Legislature adjourn before the 90 days, leaving any bills beyond the operating and capital budgets to a later day.
Tuesday was day 50.
Meanwhile, Dunleavy Chief of Staff Ben Stevens issued a memo earlier this week announcing a hiring freeze and suspension of unnecessary out-of-state travel for workers.
Stevens noted that these measures are in response to the recent plummet in oil prices, not to the spread of COVID-19.
The hiring freeze applies to all positions not considered essential for protection of residents. The current hiring of additional public health nurses and lab personnel does not fall under this restriction, Dunleavy told reporters.
The out-of-state travel suspension applies to all state workers.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.