We need decisive action to protect our public health and our economy

by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky

While news of effective COVID-19 vaccines give us hope and comfort at the prospect of post-pandemic life, travel, and quality time with those we love, the on-going surge in cases makes it clear that immediate, decisive statewide action is an absolute necessity to protect the lives of Alaskans.

As Alaska grapples with a record breaking number of COVID-19 cases week after week, increasing hospitalizations that strain our state’s medical capacity and we continue to witness unnecessary loss of life, failure to enact statewide protective measures that mitigate harm to Alaskans on the promise of a future vaccine is nothing short of negligence.

Throughout the summer and early fall, the House Health and Social Services committee held eight hearings focused on COVID-19 and how best to respond to the public health and economic threat that it poses. We heard from a broad cross-section of hospital administrators, physicians, epidemiologists, and public health leaders from across the state. What was striking in these hearings was the consistent testimony from the public health experts, alongside the absence of State officials charged with responding to the pandemic.

Experts testified time and time again that simple, commonsense steps by the State could reduce transmission of COVID-19, save lives, protect healthcare infrastructure, and keep Alaska’s economy open for business. These protective measures include temporarily requiring masks in public, issuing workplace safety standards, and implementing capacity limits to ensure proper social distancing in public.

Experts were clear — in order to maintain a healthy economy, Alaska must have a healthy population. Economists also testified that implementation of statewide public health measures would contribute to a quicker and more robust economic rebound, because when people feel safe leaving their home they are more likely to spend money. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research projected that nearly 90% of the decline in economic activity from this year is from people voluntarily choosing to stay home.

Further, while there is a lot the medical community still does not know about this virus, we know enough about its epidemiology to predict with reasonable certainty how much it will continue to spread, the number of people who will be hospitalized, and the number of Alaskans who will die in the near future if action is not taken. These trends are being realized acutely in rural Alaska, like my home region of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where populations are small, advanced clinical resources are fewer and farther between, and healthcare workers may not be immediately available to staff a surge in hospitalizations.

As intensive care capacity becomes increasingly unavailable in Alaska’s larger communities and hospitals acquire mobile morgues, some rural hospitals are already preparing to implement crisis care strategies. This means, if the virus continues to spread at an exponential trajectory and there is no overflow capacity for critically ill patients to be transferred for intensive care, providers will be forced to make the difficult decision of who qualifies for medevacs or scarce patient care resources (like a hospital bed or oxygen).

In a place like Alaska, and particularly rural areas, individuals who are hospitalized or are losing their battle with COVID-19 are not faceless, nameless individuals. These are people who serve as pillars of their community. They are the grandparents and culture bearers of a village. They are the parent of a childhood friend or the neighbor you crossed paths with daily at the post office or the person you chatted with at the grocery store. The losses occurring in rural Alaska are felt with great magnitude for families, communities, and healthcare teams alike.

In times of crisis, particularly due to an unseen threat to health, we need courageous leadership following evidence-based recommendations. It has become abundantly clear that simply asking people to do something, when you have the legal authority to save lives and the capacity of our medical system, is not leadership. It has not flattened the curve of COVID-19’s spread in Alaska. We need decisive action, taken now, to protect our public health and our economy. Alaskans are worth it.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, is the chairwoman of the House Health and Social Services Committee and the House Tribal Affairs Committee.

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