Updated 6:47 p.m.: Local governments and Fairbanks’ major health care providers signed onto a letter Monday urging Gov. Mike Dunleavy to order the closure of non-essential businesses in Interior Alaska, including Fairbanks and the surrounding villages, and to “issue a strong urgency to Interior residents to stay at home.”
“We are extremely sympathetic to businesses during this time; however, studies indicate that if we do not ‘flatten the curve,’ the virus will spread exponentially straining Fairbanks’ medical and community infrastructure resources and cause unnecessary deaths to Interior residents,” the letter states.
It is signed by the city of Fairbanks, city of North Pole, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Tanana Valley Clinic, Fairbanks Native Association and Interior Community Health Center.
The health care providers and local governments later announced they are joining forces in a unified community response to the coronavirus. It will be based out of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, according to borough Mayor Bryce Ward.
The three local mayors urged more action from the governor while agreeing that they lack the power to call on businesses in the borough to shut down.
North Pole Mayor Mike Welch said he isn’t sure if he has the power to issue a shelter-in-place order to residents but that he would go out on a limb if there was an outbreak in North Pole and it would save lives.
“I do not believe I have the power to close down my city’s businesses. That would have to come from above,” Welch said.
Teal Soden, city of Fairbanks communications director, said city code does not provide for shelter-in-place orders.
“That said, the mayor is strongly urging the community to stay home and distance from other people as much as possible,” she wrote in an email.
Ward said that a disaster, such as a pandemic, does not expand his powers. The borough does not issue business licenses or otherwise regulate commercial activity nor does it exercise broad health powers.
The letter to the state is addressed to Adam Crum, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, but calls for action from the governor.
It states that, “We believe that community acquired COVID-19 transmission is occurring in our region. Controlling the transmission of this outbreak will be critical for the health and well-being of Fairbanks and the surrounding rural communities in the Interior of Alaska. These latter individuals are at an even higher risk due to the very limited resources present to address their medical needs.”
Victor Joseph, chairman and chief at TCC, said the great majority of the 41 Interior villages served by the organization have health aides. Three communities lack health aides due to unfilled vacancies. Health aides at two communities are traveling.
Joseph said that if the virus made its way into a village, a health aide could easily be overwhelmed.
“We are in communications with our rural communities every day,” he said. “We are talking to our leaders. Of course, the ones with medical providers are better off than the ones who don’t.”
Joseph joined local leaders who praised the new coordinated response effort during an afternoon news conference at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
The new Unified Command will reduce duplication of efforts by governments and health care providers so resources are used more wisely, Joseph said.
“We need to be able to maximize all of our resources in that we’re working together, so communication is going to be essential,” he said. “It’s also very important for me as our tribes in the surrounding area within the Interior rely on Fairbanks as their hub community, and so the conversation needs to just be larger than Fairbanks. It has to include the Interior as was said.”
Fairbanks city Mayor Jim Matherly wants to see information coming from different organizations streamlined.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last week, which has been a whirlwind for so many of us, is that there are so many players and so many people doing so much great work that sometimes the message was getting lost in translation,” he said. “All of us had good information, but it was going out at different times.
“This is the time where the Interior needs to be the Interior, not the city and the borough and the city and the hospitals,” he added. “We’re all one, folks, trying to make things right and get the information to people as quick as possible.”
Ward said in an email that details of the new Unified Command are pending.
A Joint Information Center will be directed by incident commanders and supported by the member agencies, he said.
“The policy group has given direction to the incident commanders to develop an operational goal and objectives. They will be shared by the group when they are completed, soon,” Ward wrote.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.