Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed concern for Alaska’s remote rural communities when questioning national health officials on the dangers of COVID-19 during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing Tuesday.
Committee members were joined at Tuesday’s hearing by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services; and Dr. Stephan Hahn, commissioner of food and drugs for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
During the meeting, held largely to allow senators to ask questions regarding testing for and prevention against COVID-19, Murkowski brought up concerns she has regarding some of Alaska’s more remote communities and the best way to protect those areas.
“Alaska is doing ok right now from a numbers perspective and quite honestly we want to keep it that way because we know we have exceptionally vulnerable populations and a geography that is challenging and facilities that are limited,” Murkowski said.
The senator noted a recent out-of-state worker who tested positive in Cordova, underscoring concerns many locals have with regard to opening this summer’s commercial fishing season to workers from outside the state as is commonly done each year.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he intends to go ahead with plans to open the fishery, raising concerns among some that the influx of outsiders might spike a surge in cases.
“So much of the focus has been on hotspots and responding to the hotspots,” Murkowski said. “But how do you keep those rural, remote, small communities from becoming the hotspots in the first place? Are we doing enough?”
Murkowski noted that up until recently the strategy has been to simply close off communities to outside traffic, a method that will not work when an entire industry depends on a large portion of out of state workers.
“The travel restrictions we have in place are obviously working but they’re also devastating our economy,” she said.
As industries open up, Murkowski emphasized the need for more robust approaches to contact tracing in order to narrow possible trails of interaction once an individual has tested positive.
“I’m not convinced that we’re focusing enough on that aspect,” she said.
Redfield acknowledged that building up adequate ability to contact trace will mean the difference between success and failure in reopening state economies.
Alaska saw its first day with no new cases of COVID-19 in two weeks on Wednesday.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 45907544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.