Gov amends session to allow lawmakers to tackle COVID

As cases rise, staffing shortages cause strain

Gov. Mike Dunleavy once again amended the call of the current special session of the Alaska State Legislature, this time to allow lawmakers more latitude to address the state’s increasing COVID-19 cases.

In a news conference last Thursday, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said the state and many others are facing worker shortages and need flexibility in getting health care workers. Alaska is highly reliant on out-of-state workers, Zink said, and the entire nation is facing a shortage of both personnel and supplies.

“I want to reassure Alaskans emergency departments are not closed,” Zink said. “There may be longer waits, but they’re not closed.”

Zink and other health officials said the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 continues to rise and is putting continued strain on the state’s health care systems. The rise in cases is primarily attributed to the delta variant of the virus, which is more transmissible and better at evading immunities, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, who said that the state is seeing more vaccinated people in need of hospitalization as well.

Health officials stressed vaccines are the most effective way to prevent contracting and transmitting the virus, but said they understood people’s hesitancy to do so.

“We continue to move at the speed of trust,” Zink said.

The Department of Health and Social Services is partnering with the Alaska Chamber of Commerce to offer weekly prizes to incentivize people to get vaccinated.

At the news conference, Alaska Chamber President and CEO Kati Capozzi said a combination of prizes would be offered to adults who vaccinate or parents of children 12 and older who get their children vaccinated, with a chance to win $49,000. Those who are already vaccinated are eligible for certain prizes as well, Capozzi said. More information about the contest is at

The Chamber and DHSS partnered in spring to distribute $1 million to local chambers which was used for local incentive campaigns, said Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg, who said the collaborative effort had helped the initial vaccination campaign.

“We (are) slowly and steadily increasing vaccinations, but we still have a ways to go,” Hedberg said.

State health officials were trying to provide as much information as possible to Alaskans, Zink said, to try and reassure them about the vaccine’s safety, but there was a lot of misinformation to contend with.

Dates and figures

The Food and Drug Administration has given a provisional date of Sept. 20 for people to begin receiving booster doses of the vaccine, said DHSS epidemiologist Matt Bobo, but the state is still waiting on additional guidance. Bobo said it was not yet clear if the FDA intended to authorize boosters for segments of the population like the elderly and health care workers before the general public.

According to state data, 55.3% of the state’s total eligible population is fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks since their final dose.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.