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 stated it’s the easiest way to get by way of 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 regularly talks about it in conditional phrases, saying Alaskans ought to speak to their docs about getting vaccinated or ought to contemplate vaccination.
The governor’s political opponents and impartial observers see a simple motive: Dunleavy is operating 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 stated he’s not 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. Whenever you’re within the midst of a pandemic, and instances are rising, and persons are going to the hospital. That’s pure politics. 100% pure politics,” Dunleavy stated.
Gara, whose partner is a hospital employee, stated he has requested Dunleavy for months to hearken to the recommendation of medical professionals. He stated the governor’s choice to not push more durable on vaccinations is a political act.
“That’s him politicizing issues and him ducking duty for a job that I’m completely happy to take if he doesn’t wish to do it,” Gara stated.
“Disposable masks and vaccination is how we beat this pandemic,” he stated.
Former Gov. Invoice Walker, operating as an impartial in subsequent 12 months’s election, stated 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 develop into an enormous problem in subsequent 12 months’s election marketing campaign, nevertheless it may have an effect on choices involving the well being of Alaskans.
The overwhelming majority of Alaska’s instances, hospitalizations and deaths have been amongst people who find themselves unvaccinated, based on public well being officers right here.
There doesn’t look like current 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 Celebration have obtained 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, stated he has no purpose to consider that the pattern is totally different in Alaska.
Alaskans was barely totally different from the remainder of the nation, Hellenthal stated, however as a result of Alaskans now get their data from the identical nationwide sources as the remainder of the nation, that has modified.
“Now, mainly our nationwide information is our native information,” he stated.
“The (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley is heavy Republican and has one of many lowest charges of vaccination in the complete state. That basically highlights the theme: Politics has taken over medication. Now, politicians are typically our native docs,” Hellenthal stated.
In early 2021, as the primary vaccinations started to be distributed, Dunleavy stated 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 obtainable vaccines has been effectively established. All three present glorious safety in opposition to extreme COVID infections,” he said in March.
On April 2, Dunleavy appeared in a TV commercial urging Alaskans to get vaccinated.
“If you happen to’re 16 or older, be part of me, obtain the vaccine, and get Alaska up and operating,” he stated.
That industrial hasn’t run on TV or radio since Might 22. That’s a time when political variations over vaccination started to widen nationally, based on figures revealed by Kaiser Household Basis.
In Alaska, the speed of recent vaccinations has slowed considerably. Between Jan. 13 and Might 22, about 329,000 Alaskans obtained 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 recent vaccinations has risen for the reason that begin of September, nevertheless it stays effectively beneath what it was in the beginning of the 12 months.
Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the governor, stated Dunleavy “will seem in upcoming COVID-19 PSA advertisements. Amongst his messages, he highlights that vaccines are available to all Alaskans and urges cautious conduct to assist the pressure on hospitals.”
In current radio and TV interviews, the governor has regularly stated Alaskans ought to speak to their physician and provides “critical thought” to getting vaccinated. He did so once more on Wednesday.
That’s softer wording than public well being officers have used.
“Prevention is approach cheaper, approach simpler and it’s going to be the factor that’s going to get us out of the pandemic as shortly as attainable. The largest factor is COVID-19 vaccinations, and boosters once they’re accessible and also you’re eligible,” Zink stated.
Requested Wednesday whether or not he’ll make a stronger push, Dunleavy stated, “I’ve stated on numerous events that Alaskans ought to critically contemplate 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 stated he’s fearful that Dunleavy isn’t following the recommendation of medical specialists.
On Sept. 1, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Dwelling Affiliation despatched a letter to the state with 10 pressing requests. The state’s response stated 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 quite than the well being of Alaskans,” Walker stated.
Walker stated the state needs to be “a lot, far more aggressive on the urging of the vaccinations” and instructed that Maryland and Massachusetts — two states with Republican governors — are examples to observe.
In Maryland, state workers are being paid a $100 bonus in the event that they get vaccinated, the state is operating 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 aren’t any state-level money incentives.
“The governor has not taken a place on the raffle,” Sullivan stated. She stated his administration has not thought-about a money incentive for both state workers or members of the general public.
“The administration is just not making ready any money incentive program urging the general public to get vaccinated. The Chamber is already enterprise this,” Sullivan stated.
“I feel Dunleavy is strolling the tightrope as delicately as he can,” stated Ivan Moore, a political analyst in Anchorage.
He, Moore, Gara and Walker every stated they don’t know whether or not the COVID pandemic might be a serious problem in subsequent 12 months’s election.
“It relies upon whether or not we’re nonetheless in it, or whether or not it’s historical past by then,” Moore stated.
No matter what occurs subsequent 12 months, COVID-19’s political divides have already had main results. Zink stated 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 largest tragedy that has come of that is the polarization and the politicization of this problem,” stated Dr. Kristen Solana Walkinshaw, chief of employees at Windfall Alaska Medical Heart, throughout a public radio call-in show this week.
“You understand, it’s about science, and we have now made it about politics,” she stated. “And it’s so unlucky as a result of persons are struggling all over the place.”