As Alaska faces a record surge of COVID-19 infections that has overwhelmed the state’s hospitals, state public well being officers say vaccination and masking are the most effective methods to restrict and finish the surge.
Whereas different states have aggressively pushed each strategies with incentives or mandates, the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy has most well-liked a voluntary strategy.
Within the final months of 2020 and the primary months of 2021, the governor endorsed vaccination and mentioned it’s one of the best ways to get by the pandemic.
However as new vaccination charges slowed and Republican views of the vaccination soured, the governor’s messaging appeared to vary. Whereas he has endorsed vaccination, he extra steadily talks about it in conditional phrases, saying Alaskans ought to discuss to their docs about getting vaccinated or ought to think about vaccination.
The governor’s political opponents and unbiased observers see a simple motive: Dunleavy is working for reelection as a Republican, most of his supporters are Republicans, and Republicans are much more likely than independents and Democrats to be skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccination and public well being efforts.
On Wednesday, Dunleavy mentioned he isn’t appearing with political motives, however others, together with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara, a former Anchorage state consultant, are appearing politically by criticizing his strategy.
“Completely, it’s about elections. And that’s a pox on their home. Once you’re within the midst of a pandemic, and circumstances are rising, and persons are going to the hospital. That’s pure politics. 100% pure politics,” Dunleavy mentioned.
Gara, whose partner is a hospital employee, mentioned he has requested Dunleavy for months to hearken to the recommendation of medical professionals. He mentioned the governor’s resolution to not push tougher on vaccinations is a political act.
“That’s him politicizing issues and him ducking duty for a job that I’m completely satisfied to take if he doesn’t need to do it,” Gara mentioned.
“Disposable masks and vaccination is how we beat this pandemic,” he mentioned.
Former Gov. Invoice Walker, working as an unbiased in subsequent yr’s election, mentioned he thought Dunleavy did effectively with the state’s preliminary response to the pandemic, “however then the politics appeared to creep in.”
The argument has potential to change into a giant concern in subsequent yr’s election marketing campaign, but it surely might have an effect on selections involving the well being of Alaskans.
The overwhelming majority of Alaska’s circumstances, hospitalizations and deaths have been amongst people who find themselves unvaccinated, in accordance with public well being officers right here.
There doesn’t seem like latest public-opinion polling in Alaska that’s examined Republican and Democratic attitudes on masking and vaccination, however nationwide surveys have repeatedly discovered a pointy divide.
This month, a Pew Analysis Heart ballot concluded that 86% of Democrats and independents who lean towards the Democratic Get together have acquired at the very least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, in contrast with 60% of Republicans and Republican leaners.
Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Alaska political marketing consultant, mentioned he has no motive to consider that the development is totally different in Alaska.
Alaskans was once barely totally different from the remainder of the nation, Hellenthal mentioned, however as a result of Alaskans now get their info from the identical nationwide sources as the remainder of the nation, that has modified.
“Now, principally our nationwide information is our native information,” he mentioned.
“The (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley is heavy Republican and has one of many lowest charges of vaccination in your entire state. That basically highlights the theme: Politics has taken over medication. Now, politicians are usually our native docs,” Hellenthal mentioned.
In early 2021, as the primary vaccinations started to be distributed, Dunleavy mentioned voluntary vaccination could be the important thing to ending the pandemic.
“Now it’s time to make the ultimate push. With over 310 million photographs administered worldwide, the protection and efficacy of accessible vaccines has been effectively established. All three present glorious safety towards extreme COVID infections,” he said in March.
On April 2, Dunleavy appeared in a TV commercial urging Alaskans to get vaccinated.
“In the event you’re 16 or older, be part of me, obtain the vaccine, and get Alaska up and working,” he mentioned.
That business hasn’t run on TV or radio since Could 22. That’s a time when political variations over vaccination started to widen nationally, in accordance with figures printed by Kaiser Household Basis.
In Alaska, the speed of latest vaccinations has slowed considerably. Between Jan. 13 and Could 22, about 329,000 Alaskans acquired at the very least one dose of the vaccine. Within the 4 months since then, fewer than 90,000 extra residents have gotten at the very least one dose.
As soon as a nationwide chief in vaccination charges, the state is now below the national average.
The speed of latest vaccinations has risen for the reason that begin of September, but it surely stays effectively beneath what it was initially of the yr.
Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the governor, mentioned Dunleavy “will seem in upcoming COVID-19 PSA adverts. Amongst his messages, he highlights that vaccines are available to all Alaskans and urges cautious habits to assist the pressure on hospitals.”
In latest radio and TV interviews, the governor has steadily mentioned Alaskans ought to discuss to their physician and provides “severe thought” to getting vaccinated. He did so once more on Wednesday.
That’s softer wording than public well being officers have used.
“Prevention is method cheaper, method simpler and it’s going to be the factor that’s going to get us out of the pandemic as rapidly as attainable. The most important factor is COVID-19 vaccinations, and boosters once they’re accessible and also you’re eligible,” Zink mentioned.
Requested Wednesday whether or not he’ll make a stronger push, Dunleavy mentioned, “I’ve mentioned on numerous events that Alaskans ought to significantly think about getting a vaccination in the event that they haven’t. I’m not going to berate Alaskans. I’m not going to yell at Alaskans. I’m not going to persuade Alaskans.”
Walker mentioned he’s nervous that Dunleavy isn’t following the recommendation of medical consultants.
On Sept. 1, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing House Affiliation despatched a letter to the state with 10 pressing requests. The state’s response mentioned it has enacted options to all however two, these coping with masking and vaccination.
“All I can say is it definitely seems he’s favoring his political base somewhat than the well being of Alaskans,” Walker mentioned.
Walker mentioned the state needs to be “a lot, way more aggressive on the urging of the vaccinations” and recommended that Maryland and Massachusetts — two states with Republican governors — are examples to comply with.
In Maryland, state workers are being paid a $100 bonus in the event that they get vaccinated, the state is working a multimillion-dollar lottery for adults who get vaccinated, and youthful state residents are eligible for a scholarship lottery. Many native cities and counties are additionally providing money incentives to get vaccinated.
Right here in Alaska, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce is working a small-scale lottery drawing, funded with federal cash distributed by the state, however there are not any state-level money incentives.
“The governor has not taken a place on the raffle,” Sullivan mentioned. She mentioned his administration has not thought of a money incentive for both state workers or members of the general public.
“The administration shouldn’t be making ready any money incentive program urging the general public to get vaccinated. The Chamber is already enterprise this,” Sullivan mentioned.
“I feel Dunleavy is strolling the tightrope as delicately as he can,” mentioned Ivan Moore, a political analyst in Anchorage.
He, Moore, Gara and Walker every mentioned they don’t know whether or not the COVID pandemic will probably be a significant concern in subsequent yr’s election.
“It relies upon whether or not we’re nonetheless in it, or whether or not it’s historical past by then,” Moore mentioned.
No matter what occurs subsequent yr, COVID-19’s political divides have already had main results. Zink mentioned well being care staff “have been bodily threatened, and violently attacked at instances … in conditions and circumstances they’ve by no means seen of their careers.”
“I’ll simply say that I really feel like the most important tragedy that has come of that is the polarization and the politicization of this concern,” mentioned Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, chief of employees at Windfall Alaska Medical Heart, throughout a public radio call-in show this week.
“You already know, it’s about science, and now we have made it about politics,” she mentioned. “And it’s so unlucky as a result of persons are struggling in every single place.”