In the third virtual town hall of its kind, Gov. Mike Dunleavy was joined by members of his COVID-19 response team as well as a few commissioners to answer questions about unemployment, jobs and Alaska’s economy in the context of the current pandemic.
Dunleavy’s Director of Community Relations Dave Stieren facilitated Thursday’s town hall, which featured Dunleavy, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink; Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum; Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Julie Anderson and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter.
Before the town hall began, Dunleavy and Zink talked about the latest case count for Alaska. Thirteen new cases were reported on Thursday. Zink said in a press release from DHSS that Alaskans should take the significant spike in new cases as a sign that COVID-19 is still in the community, despite relatively low numbers up to this point.
“Alaskans should take this news as an important reminder that the virus is still with us and that we should not ease up on the actions each of us can take to protect ourselves,” Zink said in the release. “Including keeping six feet of distance from others, wearing a face covering when out in public, washing our hands frequently, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces at home and work.”
Zink also said the state is keeping an eye on what seems to be a surge in cases concentrated on the Kenai Peninsula, as seven of the 13 cases announced Thursday were peninsula residents.
“We’re still undergoing case investigation with these, and it makes us concerned about community spread, particularly in the Kenai Peninsula area at this time,” Zink said. “It really kind of emphasizes the point that this virus is circulating, and we’re really seeing that area lighting up at the moment.”
Dunleavy said during the town hall that the increase in cases did not come as a surprise.
“We’ll see a number of cases over time, and we will continue to monitor the situation,” Dunleavy said. “From our perspective, there’s no cause for alarm with these numbers.”
The questions brought up during Thursday’s town hall were submitted ahead of time by Alaska residents, either on Facebook or at gov.alaska.gov/townhall, and were answered by various members of the panel depending on the nature of the question.
Many of the questions dealt with people’s specific issues regarding unemployment insurance and financial assistance for small businesses.
In addressing questions people had about their application for unemployment insurance being denied for various reasons, Ledbetter said that several new unemployment programs have been implemented in the state over a short period of time, so denials occasionally made in error would be inevitable.
“Unemployment insurance is very complex, and what people don’t realize is that we had to stand up multiple programs, not just one,” Ledbetter said. “And so going from record-low unemployment to now record-high (unemployment) and having to stand up five different programs, it was necessary for individuals to get into our system, apply, and even receive a denial, but that did not mean that we aren’t going to work that case.”
Ledbetter added that if someone has had their application for unemployment denied, they should expect her department to follow up with them to see what they may be eligible for or why the denial occurred.
Some Alaskans found themselves in unique situations that led to them being denied unemployment insurance, like one woman who explained in her question that she was stuck overseas and was denied unemployment insurance benefits for that reason. Ledbetter explained that part of the eligibility requirements as defined on the federal level mandate that a person must be physically in their state of residence to receive unemployment, because part of being eligible is being prepared to go back to work as soon as possible. If someone is in another country, Ledbetter said, then they can’t go back to work as soon as possible.
Ledbetter said that she has had discussions with Alaska’s congressional delegation regarding this specific issue because many people are stuck out of state due to travel restrictions outside of a person’s control, and that it is a point of concern for federal lawmakers.
Another question had to do with nonprofits in the state that are ineligible for the current round of Alaska CARES Act funding being distributed by the state. Anderson explained that the first round of financial assistance for nonprofits was for those operating as 501 (c)(3) organizations — which include most charities — and 501 (c)(19) organizations, which include veterans’ organizations.
Alaska’s DHSS is developing a $50 million funding program, Anderson said, for all nonprofits regardless of designation, and in the second round of CARES funding Anderson’s department will be seeking guidance on how to make those funds available for 501(c)(6) organizations — which include chambers of commerce, Realtor groups and other similar organizations.
When asked if businesses would be held liable if it is found that a customer or employee has tested positive for COVID-19, none of the panelists could give a specific answer. Dunleavy said it is not the state’s intention to punish businesses during the pandemic.
Dunleavy was also asked what conversations he is having with the White House. Dunleavy said that the main point of discussion right now is about the uncertainty of the situation moving into the future.
“Built into that uncertainty is, are we going to have resources to deal with maybe the twists and turns of this pandemic and its impact upon the economy, society, nonprofits, etc.?” Dunleavy said. “So the specter of the unknown that continues to be out there is what’s fueling these conversations.”
COVID-19 in Alaska: by the numbers
The 13 new cases reported on Thursday brings the state’s total to 425. The cases are from seven Alaska communities: Anchorage (four), Juneau (one), Homer (two), Kenai (one) Nikiski (one), the Kenai Peninsula Borough (three) and the North Slope Borough (one.) No additional nonresident cases, hospitalizations or deaths were reported on Thursday.
Of the new cases, seven are male and six are female. Two are between the ages of 10 and 19, one is between the ages of 20 and 29, three are between the ages of 30 and 39, two are between the ages of 40 and 49, four are between the ages of 50 and 59 and one is between the ages of 60 and 69.
Two new recoveries were recorded on Thursday, bringing that total to 366.
A total of 47,970 tests have been conducted across the state with a positivity rate of .9%.
Locally, Central Peninsula Hospital has conducted 1,049 tests, with 11 coming back positive, 1,007 coming back negative and 31 pending results. South Peninsula Hospital has conducted 977 tests, with 10 coming back positive, 934 coming back negative and 33 pending results.
For questions about the state’s COVID-19 response, visit covid19.alaska.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org.