5 Things Alaska: COVID-19 update, Telehealth bill, Dispatch from WA

America now has 11,329 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 85% of which came in the last seven days. Organizations like JP Morgan predict a 2% economic contraction nationally in Q1 and a 3% contraction in Q2, miring us already in a recession. Oil is down to $20 for the first time since 2002. These are precarious times. So, do your best to add a little love and empathy to your interactions. It might make all the difference…





With help from Emily Boerger

1. Coronavirus health update

Alaska announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 last Thursday.  It’s now up to 9 confirmed cases. Since then, the state has pushed forward with four health mandates aimed at preventing community spread of the disease through the closure of schools, libraries, museums, dine-in services at bars and restaurants, and through required isolation for residents who have recently traveled.

DHSS also released a series of health alerts, including this one which suspends “all long-term services and supports that occur in congregate settings, including senior centers, adult day services, and any site-based day habilitation or supported employment activities where individuals gather together.”

The good news is that all of the known cases in Alaska so far are travel-related. The bad news is that based on the experience of other states, the virus may already be spreading undetected in communities. Hopefully the swift action to enforce social distancing by state leadership will help flatten the curve in Alaska.

2. Telehealth legislation signed by Governor

The threat of COVID-19 helped push a new telehealth bill (HB29) through the Alaska Legislature last week. The bill, which Gov. Dunleavy signed on Monday, requires health care insurers that offer plans in the group and individual market to cover telehealth services. Originally, language in the bill set an effective date of January 1, 2021. However, the threat of COVID-19 prompted senators to amend the legislation to make it effective immediately upon passage.

“Expanded access to telehealth makes us more prepared to deal with COVID-19,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Ivy Spohnholz. “House Bill 29’s rapid progression through the legislative process proves that Democrats and Republicans – in the House, Senate, and governor’s administration, can and will work together to pass the kind of reforms we need in the coming months.”

3. Economic impacts of COVID-19

Beyond the public health threat, COVID-19 also poses a major threat to Alaska’s economy. Among the concerns: the closure of businesses means around 8% of Alaska’s workforce is out of work, the tourism and cruise industry are expected to be hard-hit, and North Slope oil prices fell to below $30 per barrel this week. The collapsed oil market prompted ConocoPhillips and Oil Search to scale back their North Slope operations.

In response, Gov. Dunleavy announced the creation of the Alaska Economic Stabilization Team on Tuesday to address the economic threat of the novel coronavirus. “The Coronavirus Disease is exacerbating Alaska’s existing economic challenges and is unfortunately creating new ones,” said Governor Dunleavy. Additionally, the House Labor and Commerce Committee introduced legislation on Wednesday to extend Unemployment Insurance relief to Alaskans who have lost work hours due to the impacts of the pandemic.


4. Video: Rep. Geran Tarr

Rep. Geran Tarr represents Alaska’s House District 19 in Anchorage. Tarr currently serves on the House Health & Social Services Committee as well as on the Health & Social Services Finance Subcommittee. She joins us in this edition of “What They’re Watching” to discuss trauma-informed practices and early intervention.

“A couple years ago we were able to get a statute passed for the Department of Health and Social Services to implement trauma-informed practices there, and [we’re] looking at how we can extend that into health care and do more comprehensive screenings. We like to talk about addressing the problem upstream. So, I think this is a huge opportunity for us to do the earliest intervention possible and hopefully have much better health outcomes and save a lot of money.”


5. Dispatch from Seattle

State of Reform now covers health policy in nine states. It means our we’ve been covering this COVID pandemic from a lot of different perspectives. But, I’m actually writing this from the Seattle area, where I live, and where we are probably about two months ahead of Alaska in terms of the virus’s spread.

For a sense of what life is like at the epicenter of the American outbreak, we’ve started this new column “Dispatch from Seattle” to discuss life amid “community spread,” and to help inform folks about what they might expect as the number of cases grow.

The first edition gives an idea of what it looks like to visit primary care clinics, the complexity of trying to get tested, and the anxiety of lives being turned upside down. Washington public schools are closed until April 24 — though it seems likely they won’t return before summer. With this on our minds, the second edition outlines four lessons drawn from school closures, which is probably as appropriate in Alaska now as it is in Washington State.