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Updated: 2 hours 49 min ago

Tsunami watch ordered in Hawaii after 8.1 New Zealand quake; impact on West Coast and Alaska under review

3 hours 3 min ago

A tsunami watch has been ordered for Hawaii after a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean northeast of New Zealand.

The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center is reviewing data to determine the threat of a tsunami in California and the rest of the West Coast  after a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck northeast of New Zealand.

The earthquake, which struck Thursday at 11:28 a.m. Pacific time, was being reviewed for the threat to California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and British Columbia.


A tsunami watch has been ordered for Hawaii after a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean northeast of New Zealand.

A tsunami watch was ordered for the state of Hawaii at 12:24 p.m. Pacific time. If tsunami waves do hit Hawaii, the earliest time a tsunami could hit the state is at 4:35 p.m. local time, or 2:35 p.m. Pacific time.

A tsunami advisory was issued for the American Samoa, and officials urged people in or near the ocean to move out of the water and away from beaches and harbors. “Based on all available data, there is a threat to American Samoa of sea level fluctuations and strong ocean currents that could be a hazard along beaches, in harbors, and in coastal waters.”

New Zealand authorities have issued a tsunami alert for sections of the north island, ordering people in several sections of the island to evacuate immediately.

Prior to the the magnitude 8.1 quake, there was a magnitude 7.4 quake in the same region at 9:41 a.m. Pacific time.

The epicenter of the magnitude 8.1 earthquake occurred about 675 miles northeast of Auckland, nearly 4,000 miles southwest of Honolulu and about 6,000 miles away from Los Angeles.

The time is now for Alaskans in need to apply for rent, utility relief

3 hours 8 min ago

Homes in the Sand Lake neighborhood of Anchorage on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Many Alaskans are worried about keeping their families housed and warm as they face an uncertain financial future due to hardship created by the global pandemic. Our state lost more than 25,000 jobs as residents hunkered down, businesses were ordered closed, the visitor season never materialized and resource development was halted.

The pandemic exacted a particularly harsh toll on some of our friends and neighbors who work in coffee shops and restaurants, hotels, retailers and in administrative roles. Jobs disappeared. Hours were cut. Meanwhile, many were also forced to contend with added caregiving costs when our schools shutdown and our neighbors helped out an ill family member or friend.

We’re proud of how these neighbors and friends looked after one another, and of the work of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. At year end, Congress acted to bring relief to Alaskans with $200 million in federal funds, that with the support of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and our Legislature, is available to help with monthly rent and utilities providing up to 12 months of assistance for qualifying families in our state.

This federal money will go far in helping to keep lights on and people in our community stably housed. Alaska Housing Rent Relief will provide a critical safety net for Alaskans who have been impacted by the pandemic and its fallout through no fault of their own.

The effect of this rent relief is positive for more than those who live in these households. AHFC will pay landlords, property managers and utility companies directly, ensuring funds are used for their intended purpose and extending the benefit throughout our community and across the state.

We all know someone who lost income or increased their expenses due to the pandemic. Please take a minute to consider them and encourage them to apply for Alaska Housing Rent Relief. It could take years for eligible families to dig out of the hole that COVID-19 created for them. That’s not fair to them, and it’s not right. Now is the time for us to look out for one another and accept the relief that our congressional delegation worked for on our behalf.

AlaskaHousingRelief.org is open for applications now through 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 5. Information is also available by calling or texting “relief” to 1-833-440-0420 toll-free.

The application process is easy and confidential. Alaskans who received federally funded housing assistance earlier this summer are eligible to participate but they must apply for this new program.

Those who own their homes are not eligible but Congress is currently deliberating on legislation that could appropriate more funding to Alaska.

Regardless of your circumstance, we know that too many Alaskans are suffering, and we look forward to administering additional housing relief if and when it becomes available. Every Alaskan should have access to a safe, quality, affordable home.

Brent LeValley, a retired lender and bank community reinvestment officer, is Board Chair of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. He lives in Fairbanks. Bryan Butcher is CEO/Executive Director of AHFC. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Alert level raised after explosion at remote Alaska Peninsula volcano

3 hours 34 min ago

This July 16, 2013, photo by the Alaska Volcano Observatory shows the southwest flank of the intracaldera cone at the Veniaminof Volcano near Perryville, Alaska. (Chris Waythomas / AVO) (Alaska Volcano Observatory and U.S. Geological Survey via AP/)

A small explosion was recorded Thursday at a remote volcano on the Alaska Peninsula, prompting officials to raise the alert level.

Satellite and webcam views indicated low-level ash emissions from Mount Veniaminof volcano. The ash plume did not rise above 10,000 feet, the Alaska Volcano Observatory said. Minor ash deposits are visible at the volcano, located 480 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Officials said eruptive activity typically includes minor ash, lava fountaining and lava flows from the small cone in the ice-filled summit caldera. Ashfall is usually confined to the summit crater but larger explosions can send ash to nearby communities, as happened in a 2018 eruption.

Veniaminof is one of the most active volcanos in the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula, erupting at least 14 times in the last 200 years.

The stratovolcano in the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge is usually shrouded in fog and clouds, and the entire volcano is usually visible only once or twice a year, the park service said.

Mount Veniaminof, with an elevation of 8,225 feet, has an ice field of 25 square miles. The park service says it’s the only known glacier on the North American continent with an active volcanic vent in the center.

Capitol Police request 60-day extension of National Guard security

3 hours 55 min ago

National Guard keep watch on the Capitol, Thursday, March 4, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Capitol Police say they have uncovered intelligence of a "possible plot" by a militia group to breach the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, nearly two months after a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the iconic building to try to stop Congress from certifying now-President Joe Biden's victory. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin/)

WASHINGTON — The Capitol Police have requested that members of the National Guard continue to provide security at the U.S. Capitol for another two months, The Associated Press has learned. Defense officials say the new proposal is being reviewed by the Pentagon.

The request underscores the continuing concerns about security and the potential for violence at the Capitol, two months after rioters breached the building in violence that left five people dead. And it comes as law enforcement was on high alert Thursday around the U.S. Capitol after intelligence uncovered a “possible plot” by a militia group to storm the building.

The potential plot is tied to the far-right conspiracy theory promoted by QAnon supporters that former President Donald Trump will rise again to power on March 4, the original presidential inauguration day.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said she learned that the request for a 60-day extension was made in the last 36 hours, and that the Guard is now seeking volunteers from states around the country to fill the need.

Defense officials confirmed that the request is under review at the Pentagon, and that the Guard has started checking states for availability of their troops, in an effort to be prepared if final Defense Department approval is given. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The request got a sharp rebuke from Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “That’s not what they’re supposed to be, that’s not their mission. We have the Capitol Police, that is their mission.”

The more than 5,000 Guard members currently in Washington, D.C., are all slated to go home on March 12, ending the mission.

Slotkin said some members of Congress have been concerned about whether there is a solid plan to provide security for members and staff going forward.

“We want to understand what the plan is,” she said. “None of us like looking at the fencing, the gates, the uniformed presence around the Capitol. We can’t depend on the National Guard for our security.”

She said there has to be a plan that provides the needed security for the buildings and personnel by the Capitol Police and local law enforcement. Slotkin said it was telling that House members hastened to complete major votes Wednesday so they wouldn’t have to be in the building where many fled violent rioters in January. Lawmakers, she said, “don’t feel totally secure” in the Capitol.

U.S. Capitol Police officials have also told congressional leaders the razor-wire topped fencing around the Capitol should remain in place for several more months.

Slotkin said, however, that she was going to her office to work on Thursday. “I’m not going to let these guys scare me away,” she said.

Alaska labor commissioner cancels $450,000 fine for seafood processor over health and safety problems

4 hours 17 min ago

The Copper River Seafoods plant on East First Avenue in Anchorage. (Anchorage Daily News photo)

The commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor personally intervened earlier this year to reject a $450,000 fine against Copper River Seafoods despite an investigation that concluded the company disregarded health and safety regulations.

The investigation was prompted by a COVID-19 outbreak last year that sickened more than three-quarters of the workers at an Anchorage processing plant and sent two people to the hospital. Investigators said Copper River acted negligently with its COVID-19 response and, beyond that issue, accused it of failing to fix known safety problems, including one that caused a man in Naknek to lose his arm during a gruesome conveyor belt accident in 2018.

In a memo issued Jan. 18 and first published by KTOO-FM public media, Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter said she was “denying the request to move forward” with the fines because of concerns “with the way in which the citations were acquired and presented for my review” and problems with the documentation behind some allegations.

Joseph Knowles, director of the Labor Department’s standards and safety division, said there were “missteps” in the way his division handled the complaint and that it “fumbled this administratively.”

State law says an employer can only be cited within 180 days of a violation, and Ledbetter’s decision came before an early-February deadline.

When asked why Ledbetter acted earlier than the deadline, Deputy Commissioner Cathy Munoz answered on her behalf in an email, saying, “by mid-January the Commissioner had the information needed to make a determination.”

[Trident Seafoods resumes operations at Aleutian plant in Alaska after monthlong COVID-19 shutdown]

Critics said that if there were problems on the administrative end, she had time to work those out.

John Stallone was chief of enforcement for Alaska’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health until 2009. Now retired, he said Ledbetter’s intervention is extraordinary. In his decade of work with the department, he never saw a commissioner completely nullify the work of investigators.

“She could have said, ‘OK, I think the COVID (fine) is a little high. Let’s reduce it.’ ... She could have done that with just a stroke of the pen. She didn’t do that. She sat on it for 180 days, so the entire investigation went out the window. They don’t have to fix one damn thing now,” he said, referring to Copper River Seafoods.

Some current members of the Department of Labor have accused the commissioner of wrongdoing and have filed a whistleblower complaint with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

A preliminary response last month from OSHA said “there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the commissioner or deputy commissioner engaged in any wrongful act,” but the federal agency will examine whether the state followed policies and procedures during the Copper River Seafoods investigation and a similar case involving a different seafood-processing company in Juneau.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said he plans to hold a legislative hearing on the issue next week.

“I don’t know why she did this thing, which is unprecedented and completely inappropriate, and frankly, dangerous,” he said.

The state’s investigation began in late July, after the Department of Health and Social Services asked the Department of Labor to investigate conditions at Copper River Seafoods’ Anchorage plant. It was the first time health officials had made that kind of request because of COVID-19.

According to a Nov. 12 memo, health officials were investigating a COVID-19 outbreak that went on to infect 77% of the plant’s employees. After interviewing employees and inspecting the plant on Aug. 7, Department of Labor investigators concluded “(Copper River Seafoods) has repeatedly displayed a plain indifference for the health and safety of its own employees” by failing to provide hand sanitizer, failing to keep employees adequately separated and failing to set up physical barriers between employees.

[Federal government approves nearly $50M in pandemic aid for Alaska’s fishing industry]

When employees became ill, Copper River management “dismissed this as being ‘a normal type of sickness’ at the time of the outbreak within the plant,” investigators wrote. When the plant reopened after a two-week closure, “(regulators) documented with photographs, the same deficient workplace protections that contributed to the initial outbreak.”

According to a case file obtained through a public records request, investigators also found “serious” problems with electrical safety, sprinkler systems, forklifts and procedures used to lock down equipment for maintenance. Copper River had been warned about so-called “lockout/tagout” issues before, after a worker’s arm became caught in a conveyor belt at a plant in 2018 and had to be amputated.

The company did not respond to phone messages asking whether it disputes the allegations made by inspectors.

Department of Labor investigators advanced their allegations in two batches: One was related to COVID-19 issues, and the other was related to safety issues. The COVID-19 allegations were sent to Ledbetter for review on Dec. 29 because they represented a “novel enforcement issue,” according to the field operations manual used by health and safety inspectors.

It was the first time the state had considered fining a company for COVID-19 safety issues. Because the Department of Labor had no specific written standards for COVID-19 safety, investigators based their violations on a federal law that says companies have a “general duty” to keep employees safe from harm and cited recommended best practices.

The safety-related complaints not related to COVID-19 weren’t sent to Ledbetter until “on or about January 12,” Knowles said, because of a critical mistake. Officials had believed they didn’t require commissioner approval because they were more typical of the department’s work and the fines were below a $250,000 benchmark. But because both the safety inspection and the COVID-19 inspection took place at the same time, the two batches of fines should have been considered together, not separately.

“We failed internally to follow our own procedures and submit to her both inspections in a single memorandum,” Knowles said.

Ledbetter cited that mistake as part of the reason for rejecting the fines.

“Well, shame on them. That was their mess-up,” said Stallone, the retired safety expert. “But still, there was plenty of time.”

He and several current employees assert that the commissioner had weeks to resolve that problem before the statute of limitations expired. Those employees declined to speak on the record, citing fear of retaliation, but speculated in a whistleblower letter to OSHA that Copper River Seafoods could have received special treatment from the commissioner.

“We are now in a situation where we have observed and documented hazards to employees, but we cannot require the employer to abate these hazards,” the letter stated in part. “In this way, the commissioner is knowingly allowing employees to be exposed to workplace hazards and preventing them from being corrected.”

The issue may extend beyond Copper River Seafoods.

Soon after investigating the Anchorage plant, Department of Labor officials performed similar inspections at an Alaska Glacier Seafoods Processing plant in Juneau. That case has not yet been closed, and Knowles declined to discuss it, citing ongoing work. But according to a memo dated Feb. 18, Ledbetter is preparing to dismiss fines related to COVID-19 safety failures at that plant as well.

Fur Rendezvous continues through weekend, a dash of Anchorage normalcy after a difficult year

4 hours 30 min ago

Ada Coyle and Walter Savetilik watch the AT&T Fireworks Extravaganza during Fur Rendezvous from the parking garage on W. Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

For the first time in about a year, a large-scale festival is happening in Anchorage.

Fur Rendezvous looks different this year. There’s no sled dog race, no Running of the Reindeer or Miners and Trappers Ball. But some activities were scaled back instead of canceled, and organizers said they worked with state and municipal health officials to make Rondy safe.

“Overall, we had to look at our events in a critical manner and with caution,” said executive director John McCleary. “We have to provide that safe experience and look at what’s happening in the Anchorage community.”

For many folks, McCleary said, Fur Rondy’s two weeks of events are bringing a sense of relief and normalcy during an exceptionally stressful year. The festival has also brought a bump in business to downtown stores and restaurants that have been hard-hit during the pandemic, according to McCleary.


The Fur Rondy fireworks seen from downtown Anchorage on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

“Last weekend, the restaurants and shops downtown were all packed to their COVID capacity levels. ... Rondy is the bridge for many restaurants and downtown businesses to make it through the winter and into the spring,” he said.

[Survey: 1 in 6 Anchorage businesses fear they won’t survive impacts of COVID-19]

Last year, the festival provided one of the last glimpses of normalcy before COVID-19 reached Anchorage and started a wave of shutdowns and pandemic precautions that would change everyday life for the next year.

When organizers began preparing for the 2021 festival back in June, McCleary said, everything was uncertain. Plans for this year have been fluid.

To provide better distancing, there are roughly half the vendors this year that were at the Native Arts Market last year. Five competitors — compared to 10 last year — were scheduled for Saturday’s Outhouse Races at Westchester Lagoon. (While the event wasn’t set up to accommodate spectators, McCleary said, crowds cheered from the bank of the lagoon.)


Runners dressed in sea creature costumes participate in the Fur Rondy Frostbite Footrace on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021 in downtown Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Organizers of the Frostbite Footrace received the green light from the health department just weeks before the race and didn’t advertise the event, McCleary said. About 100 people participated.

The challenge of hosting Rondy during a pandemic comes on top of financial challenges that could place the future of the festival in jeopardy — but McCleary said he’s hopeful that fundraising efforts will succeed.

It’s been painful for McCleary to see some of the biggest and most popular events paused or scaled back, but part of the pain has stemmed from the financial impact.

The festival began fundraising in December out of concern that the anticipated drop in revenue this year could lead to financial devastation that could end the events entirely. While McCleary said the festival will go on next year, the organization is far from finished grappling with financial woes.

The cancellation of many of the most popular events led to a steep decrease in revenue. Other events have been altered to be free.

Fundraising has been slow so far, and Fur Rondy is just one of many organizations that are struggling this year, McCleary said. Rondy is essential to the community — now more than ever, he said.

“Before, people were thanking us for doing such a great event,” he said. “Now, the thank-yous have some personal aspects of, it’s so great that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Events will continue throughout the weekend, with an outdoor concert at Town Square Park on Friday, a cornhole tournament and family skating. A full schedule of events is available online.

Upcoming events:

Cornhole Icebreaker Tournament: Try your hand at cornhole – also known as corn toss, bean bag toss or soft horseshoes – at this free tournament. (While you’re there, you can check out the competition before the Sunday championship.) 7-10 p.m. Friday at the Dimond Center.

Blizzard Bash: Check out Nothin’ But Trouble at a free, outdoor concert on E Street next to Town Square Park 7-9:30 p.m. Friday on E Street next to Town Square Park.

Reindeer lottery: The actual reindeer are staying home this year. In place of the annual running is a lottery, with a chance to win admission to the Williams’ Reindeer Farm in Palmer, free entry for the 2022 Running of the Reindeer in downtown Anchorage or $50 gift cards. To see all the rules on participating, go to furrondy.net. $20 per ticket. 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Family skate + Rondy critters: The family skate is from 1-4 p.m., with Rondy critters making an appearance on the ice from 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday at Westchester Lagoon. Free.

Cornhole championship: Compete for cash prizes from $25-$350 and a plaque. $50/team of 2; $25/singles tournament. 10 a.m. Sunday at the Dimond Center.

ONGOING:

Alaska State Snow Sculptures Competition: Sculptures made from 8-foot cubes of compressed snow will be on view from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. through Sunday at Ship Creek Ave. (across from Comfort Inn). Winners have already been announced, but it’s been cold enough that the sculptures should still be in good shape.

Fur Rondy Amateur Photo Contest: Winners and finalists will be on display throughout the Midtown Mall through Sunday.

Fur Auction: Week two of the auction is running online through 6 p.m. Sunday at alaskapremierauctions.com.

Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market: Alaska Native baskets, dolls, beading, carving and more will be displayed and on sale at the Dimond Center. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Virtual Melodrama: Alaska Sound Celebration presents “Gold Rush Greed in Grizzly Gulch,” streaming online at 7 p.m. through March 14. Minimum donation of $10. See alaskasoundcelebration.org for details.

Tracking COVID-19 in Alaska: 137 new infections and no deaths reported Thursday

4 hours 42 min ago

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Alaska on Thursday reported 137 new coronavirus infections and no new deaths related to COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

Daily case counts and hospitalizations remain far below what they were during a peak in November and December that strained hospital capacity. However, the overall rate of decline in cases has slowed, and the seven-day average case rate in the state is now increasing.

In total, 299 Alaskans and four nonresidents with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic reached the state in March. Alaska’s death rate per capita is still among the lowest in the country, but the state’s size and vulnerable health care system complicate national comparisons.

By Thursday, there were 24 people with COVID-19 in hospitals throughout the state. Another eight patients had test results pending.

Nationwide, new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been falling since January. By Thursday, more than 517,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus had been reported in the U.S.

The COVID-19 vaccine reached Alaska in mid-December. By Thursday, 158,680 people — about 22% of Alaska’s total population — had received at least their first vaccine shot, according to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard. That’s above the national average of 15.9%.

Among Alaskans 16 and older, 28% had received at least one dose of vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for use for people ages 16 and older, and Moderna’s has been cleared for use in people 18 and older. At least 106,006 people had received both doses of the vaccine. Alaska has currently vaccinated more residents per capita than any other state, according to a national tracker.

[Alaska expands vaccine eligibility to those 55 and older, essential workers and high-risk populations]

Health care workers and nursing home staff and residents were the first people prioritized to receive the vaccine. Alaskans older than 65 became eligible in early January, and the state further widened eligibility criteria in February to include educators, people 50 and older with a high-risk medical condition, front-line essential workers 50 and older, and people living or working in congregate settings like shelters and prisons.

Last week, officials said people who help Alaskans 65 and older get a vaccination are now eligible to get a vaccine. And on Wednesday, the state announced that essential workers and people with potentially high risk health conditions age 16 and older as well as people who live in communities that lack water or sewer systems, in multigenerational homes, or are 55 and older are also eligible for the vaccine.

Those eligible to receive the vaccine can visit covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322 to sign up and to confirm eligibility. The phone line is staffed 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

In Anchorage, Alaskans 40 and older can get vaccinated through Southcentral Foundation, the health care organization announced Monday.

Despite the lower case numbers, most regions in Alaska are still in the highest alert category based on the current per capita rate of infection, and public health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to keep up with personal virus mitigation efforts like hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing. A highly contagious U.K. variant of the virus reached Alaska in December, while a separate variant that originated in Brazil was found in the state last month. Scientists in Alaska last week announced the discovery of 10 cases of a new coronavirus strain first discovered in California.

Of the 126 cases identified in Alaska residents, there were 35 in Anchorage plus two in Chugiak and seven in Eagle River; four in Cordova; one in Homer; one in Kenai; two in Soldotna; 13 in Fairbanks plus four in North Pole; one in Salcha; one in Delta Junction; one in Big Lake; one in Houston; 12 in Palmer; 19 in Wasilla; one in Nome; one in Juneau; two in Ketchikan; three in Petersburg; one in Unalaska; three in and Dillingham.

Among communities smaller than 1,000 not named to protect individuals’ privacy, there were two in the Copper River Census Area; one in the northern Kenai Peninsula Borough; one in the Denali Borough; one in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area; three in the Matanuska Borough; one in the Nome Census Area; and two in the Bethel Census Area.

There were also 11 new nonresident cases: three in Anchorage, one in Delta Junction, six in Unalaska, and one in an unidentified region of the state.

While people might get tested more than once, each case reported by the state health department represents only one person.

The state’s data doesn’t specify whether people testing positive for COVID-19 have symptoms. More than half of the nation’s infections are transmitted from asymptomatic people, according to CDC estimates.

— Annie Berman

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A real plan to get Alaska’s economy back on track

5 hours 38 min ago

Sen. Natasha von Imhof writes as she listens to Gov. Mike Dunleavy speak. Gov. Mike Dunleavy spoke during a Commonwealth North lunch event at the Petroleum Club of Anchorage on January 15, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

The old political adage “never let a crisis go to waste” is apparently guiding Gov. Mike Dunleavy in his latest attempt to super-size the Permanent Fund dividend in the name of pandemic relief. Giving things away is a time-tested political tactic, but we need to look beyond the next election cycle and avoid making mistakes today that our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay for tomorrow.

Three years ago, Gov. Dunleavy campaigned on giving every Alaskan a $3,000 dividend check. Now, with the pandemic as a backdrop, he wants to give every Alaskan a jumbo $5,000 dividend check under the auspices of “the need for economic relief.”

Make no mistake, this past year has been tough on Alaskans. In addition to the pandemic’s impacts on Alaskans’ physical and mental health, people have lost their jobs, leaving them unable to pay for rent and bills. In stark contrast, the stock market has been healthy, and our Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account has grown. It’s easy to see why Gov. Dunleavy would propose a $5,000 dividend as a quick fix.

The federal government recognized the economic hardship caused by the pandemic and gave billions of dollars to every state to help families and businesses in need. Alaska received more than $5.8 billion in federal funds, which came in the form of cash deposits into Alaskans’ bank accounts, rent assistance, utility grants, childcare waivers, added food benefits and enhanced unemployment payments.

That being said, money is tight here in Alaska. We’ve burned through our savings. The state’s budget for next fiscal year, without a dividend, nearly balances. The bigger the dividend, the bigger the deficit. Gov. Dunleavy’s proposal renders a $2 billion deficit and offers no plan on how to pay for it except to mention “other revenue sources.” That is political code for “taxes of every kind.” It would take both a hefty income tax and statewide sales tax from our small population to close a gap that large. This amount of taxation would have far more devastating effects in the long term than any amount of dividend received. But Gov. Dunleavy isn’t telling you that.

So, why not take $6.3 billion from the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account in one fell swoop? If we do that, the math shows that Alaskans can say goodbye to dividends forever within a few years. But Gov. Dunleavy isn’t telling you that, either.

Alaskans, we need a plan that works.

First, we must change the calculation of the dividend payout to something affordable for many years to come. It makes sense to pay a dividend using 100% of the oil royalties deposited into the Permanent Fund each year. This is something the state can afford over time and is truly the fair share calculation.

Second, we need to pass an effective spending cap that includes the dividend. It’s time to recognize that all spending, whether for schools, roads or dividend checks, is still spending. This will force the Legislature to continue downward pressure on the operating budget now and into the future.

Third, we must stimulate the economy the right way. While politically appealing, giving every Alaskan a $5,000 check, regardless of their economic circumstance, is a misguided and flawed policy. Instead, we should focus on getting Alaskans back to work. Let’s identify strategic investments to grow our economy, like alternative energy projects, modernizing ports, expanding broadband across Alaska, and building roads to connect communities. There are also deferred maintenance projects like leaky buildings, sagging bridges, and rutted roads that demand attention. This would create thousands of year-round jobs that pay competitive wages. Under this plan, we will create confidence in our state and attract additional federal and private investment dollars to invest in Alaska.

Alaska needs a blueprint for true economic success and prosperity, not a one-off PFD bonus that stunts our future and robs the next generation. I believe this plan will inspire confidence that Alaska is a good place to raise a family, for businesses to invest for the long term, and to ultimately create a strong and thriving economy.

Sen. Natasha von Imhof represents Alaska Senate District L, chairs the Legislative Budget & Audit Committee, and serves on the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Resources Committee.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Italy blocks export of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Australia, amid EU anger over delivery shortfalls

5 hours 39 min ago

AstraZeneca vaccine (AP Photo/Frank Augstein) (Frank Augstein/)

Italy has blocked the export to Australia of 250,000 AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine doses, amid a dispute with the drug manufacturer over delivery shortfalls inside the European Union, the Italian foreign ministry said Thursday.

The move was the first time an EU country deployed new powers introduced in January, after AstraZeneca announced it would deliver sharply fewer doses to the EU than promised for the first months of the year.

Italian leaders proposed the block on the Australian shipment, and EU policymakers in Brussels had the final say, said two officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential decision.

“It’s a measure which is very much targeted at companies not fulfilling their obligations,” one of the officials said.

The doses were being injected into vials in Anagni, a town outside Rome, at a plant owned by Catalent, a New Jersey-based drug company.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Australian officials.

The move could further concerns about vaccine nationalism and inflame international tensions about access to vaccines.

AstraZeneca has said it can deliver 40 million doses to the EU by the end of March. That’s half of what the company had originally pledged, and an equivalent shortfall is expected for the second quarter of the year. Company cxecutives have blamed manufacturing problems.

But many EU countries say AstraZeneca is not being fully transparent - and they suspect the company is shortchanging the EU in the interest of fulfilling contracts with other countries.

The European Commission announced in January that it would require vaccine manufacturers to ask permission of national governments before they could export doses outside of the bloc.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office last month, has been among the most aggressive EU leaders saying that doses made in the bloc should stay in the bloc. He pushed for more controls at his first EU summit last week, diplomats said. And in a conversation with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, he declared that he wanted to “suffocate” the drug companies to make sure they met their EU contracts, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported.

When the EU export controls were announced, European leaders said they would not apply to the neediest countries. But that list did not include Australia. A previous shipment of 142,000 EU-made doses of the Pfizer vaccine made it to Australia last month, as did 300,000 AstraZeneca doses over the weekend.

Australia began its vaccination campaign on Feb. 22 - nearly two months after the EU As a result, it is further behind. It has administered 47,759 doses, or 0.19 per 100 people. Italy has about two-and-a-half times the people, but has administered about 100 times the doses.

Yet Italy and the broader EU are concerned about the pace of their vaccination campaigns, as the virus continues to spread. They are far behind the United States, Britain and Israel in getting their citizens vaccinated, the result of a slow rollout, delivery delays and mixed messaging from leaders.

French President Emmanuel Macron was among those who initially questioned the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy in older people, noting there was limited clinical data on that population. About half of EU countries initially banned the vaccine for people above 65, though real-world data from Britain prompted reversals in France, Germany and elsewhere this week.

Still, some Europeans have been reluctant to get a vaccine that in clinical trials was somewhat less effective than competing vaccines in preventing symptomatic disease.

Italy has received 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine but has administered only 323,000 of them, according to official data.

- - -

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia, Ariès reported from Paris, and Pitrelli reported from Rome. The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report.

Letter: Lift sports restrictions

5 hours 57 min ago

The Assembly needs to lift Attachment E of Emergency Order 2021-55 that doesn’t allow high school sports teams from outside of Anchorage to come in the municipality to compete. This is causing the teams to go to the Mat-Su for tournaments normally held in Anchorage. The businesses here are losing revenue they sorely need.

— Greg Svendsen

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Injectable medication shows promise for Anchorage’s homeless alcoholics

5 hours 58 min ago

Lucy Tall and Roger Williams were happy to share that they have been "sober for 14 months" on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The couple spent ten years together living in homeless camps and shelters before getting placed in permanent supportive housing at the Karluk Manor last summer. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

This story was produced in a collaboration between Alaska Public Media and the Anchorage Daily News, with support from the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Lucy Tall and Roger Williams spent years living on the streets of Anchorage, camping in parks and bathing in creeks. Last year, both were suffering from health problems related to alcoholism and coronavirus was spreading.

“We realized we were getting too old for camping out in wintertime,” Williams said

The couple packed up their tent, gathered their belongings and moved into Ben Boeke Ice Arena. The city had converted the sports venue into a mass shelter to provide more space to help mitigate the virus spread.

Besides hot meals, showers and a place to sleep, the shelter offered a host of services to Anchorage’s homeless people such as housing and employment information, help with applying for economic stimulus checks and disability payments, and access to health care.


Roger Williams and Lucy Tall. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Tall and Williams had decided they wanted to stop drinking and they asked shelter workers for help. A staffer told them about a drug that would end up changing their lives. It’s called Vivitrol.

“A slow release in the body”

Tall and Williams were among at least 1,100 people who meet the official definition of homeless in Anchorage and the many thousands more who are semi-homeless: couch surfing, doubling up and living in cars. Alcohol abuse is a common struggle. Substance abuse experts estimate nearly 40 percent of the nation’s homeless population is dealing with alcohol dependence.

Vivitrol is an injectable medication, a once-a-month shot that helps people break addictions to alcohol or opioids. Though Vivitrol has shown to be an effective way to help homeless people with serious addictions gain enough stability to transition into permanent housing and stay there, it isn’t widely used yet. Addiction experts cite a lack of awareness among primary care doctors of its availability and benefits, stigma around getting help for alcoholism, and lack of desire among potential patients to get sober.


One dose of Vivitrol, an injectable form of naltrexone, is effective for about a month in blocking the effects of opioids. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Alaska Dispatch News/)

But many people who work in the fields of homelessness prevention and addiction treatment think with wider use, Vivitrol has the potential to reduce the number of people living outdoors in Anchorage.

Vivitrol falls into a class of medications called opiate antagonists. The Food and Drug Administration approved Vivitrol’s use for alcohol dependence in 2006. For people with alcohol use disorder, Vivitrol offers relief by easing their cravings.

The medication blocks the dopamine reward system that gets stimulated when alcohol enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain. Vivitrol comes in a pill form as well, called Naltrexone. For some patients, Naltrexone works well. For others, not so much. It can be hard to remember to take a daily pill, increasing the likelihood of relapse.

For homeless individuals, whose lives are often marked by trauma, or for the high percentage who experience mental health challenges, Vivitrol may be easier for them to manage. It lasts for 28 days until another shot is required.

“Remembering to take your medication is challenging. It’s even more challenging with alcohol use disorder because cognitive functioning is impaired when they are under the influence of alcohol,” said Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a senior investigator and deputy scientific director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Making it easier to stay on track is one major reason scientists were motivated to develop Vivitrol, he said.

“This is a slow release in the body. It works better for many,” said Leggio.

An older medication to treat alcoholism, Antabuse, made patients feel sick if they drank while taking the drug. Vivitrol isn’t like that. It simply reduces cravings and the feeling of intoxication from drinking alcohol.

The federal government requires private insurance to cover substance use disorders, so many health plans cover the cost of Vivitrol and associated counseling. A large portion of the homeless population is covered by Medicaid, and many treatment providers will accept Medicaid to cover Vivitrol treatment, according to the Alaska Division of Insurance. For people paying out of pocket, Vivitrol is pricey. A single shot can cost upward of $1,450, according to providers.

But given how widespread alcohol misuse is in the United States and its heavy cost to society, Vivitrol’s benefits may be well worth the price and, if anything, the medication should be more widely used, many addiction experts say.

They knew they needed help

Tall, 59, is Cup’ik, a tribal member from Chevak, a river community in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where fishing and hunting drive the economy. Many children in the region grow up bilingual, speaking Indigenous languages and English.

Things were good in Tall’s life until the arrival of adolescence, she said.

At age 15, Tall drank alcohol for the first time. Soon she watched people around her die of alcoholism while others suffered alcohol-related injuries and illnesses, both physical and mental.

As years passed, Tall’s dependence on liquor grew. She left Chevak and made her way to Anchorage, where alcohol is cheaper and more widely available, to see friends and drink.


After years of living in homeless camps and shelters, Roger Williams and Lucy Tall were recently placed in permanent supportive housing at the Karluk Manor. The couple say they draw and color "to help keep sober." (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

She met Williams, 61, in Anchorage and the two became a couple in 2011. A former North Slope roughneck and house painter, Williams was also an alcoholic and a regular client of Bean’s Café.

For a decade or so, they lived outdoors when the weather cooperated. When temperatures reached deadly cold, they slept at shelters. Sometimes they bathed in Ship Creek.

Tall was in and out of the hospital for alcohol-related problems, including a broken hip and multiple rounds of pneumonia. She and Williams mourned the deaths of homeless friends. They knew they needed help.

A disturbing portrait

According to 2019 statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 26 percent of Americans ages 18 or older reported having engaged in binge drinking during the prior month. About 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, and the economic burden of alcohol misuse in the United States in 2010 totaled $249 billion, according to the institute.

In Alaska, the statistics suggest an even more disturbing situation. The rate of alcohol-related deaths nationwide in 2017 was 9.6 per 100,000. In Alaska, it was more than double that, at 19.8 per 100,000. For Alaska Natives, the rate was a staggering 67.9 per 100,000, according to CDC numbers.

While alcohol use disorder is common, the number of people who pursue medication-assisted treatment like Vivitrol is minuscule. Nationally, it’s about 4% of alcoholics or problem drinkers, according to Leggio.

If doctors failed to prescribe lifesaving medications to such a tiny portion of patients with other serious conditions like diabetes, cancer or hypertension, society would be aghast.

“It would be unacceptable clinically, ethically, even legally,” he said.

On-demand treatment services are critical

Vivitrol treatment is available at a number of clinics around Alaska. It’s also available to inmates who have opioid or severe alcohol dependence at seven Alaska correctional facilities.

“They receive a shot just prior to release and are connected to treatment providers in the community for follow-up,” said Sarah Gallagher, Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Bean’s Café, which operates the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena next to the Ben Boeke arena, hopes to see Vivitrol offered at the medical clinic inside the facility in the near future. Medication-assisted treatment for addiction to opioids like heroin is currently offered at the clinic. But if a client wants to quit drinking with the help of Vivitrol, Bean’s will refer them and provide transportation to a clinic offering the treatment.

Having Vivitrol available at the shelter clinic would save time and expand the number of clients served, said Bean’s Café executive director Lisa Sauder.

“The more services we can deliver on-demand, in real time, then the more people we are going to be able to help,” Sauder said.

One of the challenges of helping homeless alcoholics is catching them at the moment they are ready for treatment.

“To be able to connect our clients directly to a provider who can do that the same day is really critical to the success of it,” she said.

Vivitrol has helped several clients stay sober while at Sullivan Arena, she said. The medication has also shown success among homeless residents staying in federally funded hotel rooms during the pandemic. Once on Vivitrol, they are less likely to allow drinking buddies into rooms or host liquor-fueled benders.

Not every alcoholic is a candidate for Vivitrol. The patient must have proper liver function and meet other medical criteria. But mostly they must be ready to move beyond heavy drinking.

Dolores Van Bourgondien, an advanced nurse practitioner who administers Vivitrol in Juneau, has seen many homeless clients turn it down. For a time earlier in the pandemic she nursed homeless residents staying at a COVID isolation center in the capital city. Many were chronic alcoholics who were offered the option of medically assisted treatment.

“Not one of them was open to going on the medication,” said Van Bourgondien. “You have to meet the patient where they are. People have to be ready.”

“It’s just a mindset”

After Williams and Tall told a shelter worker they wanted to get sober and into housing, she steered them to Ideal Option. The outpatient clinic for alcohol and opioid addiction treatment on East Tudor Road is one of several locations in Wasilla, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai and Ketchikan. Van Bourgondien works at the one in Juneau.

The couple rode a bus to the East Anchorage clinic and sought out Vivitrol.

“We jumped on the bandwagon,” Williams recalled.

After public transportation ground to a halt during a citywide hunker-down mandate, they continued their recovery cold turkey. They had just two injections of Vivitrol, but it was enough to set them on a path of recovery they plan to sustain.

They’re living in permanent supportive housing now at Karluk Manor, sober. They play a lot of cribbage and just celebrated their first anniversary of not drinking, said Williams.


Roger Williams helps Lucy Tall step over a snow berm this week. The couple spent 10 years together living in homeless camps and shelters before getting placed in permanent supportive housing at the Karluk Manor last summer. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

“We’re happy,” Tall said.

The couple said they are committed to their sobriety.

“It’s just a mindset,” said Tall.

Chami Krueger is a Bean’s Café medical navigator who helped the couple get connected with a Vivitrol provider. Watching Tall and Williams move from shelter to Karluk Manor “was the most rewarding day of my job,” said Krueger, her voice catching.

“I’m so incredibly proud of them.”

Paula Dobbyn can be reached at pauladob@gmail.

Letter: Where was I Nov. 3?

5 hours 58 min ago

Each morning, with my coffee, I read the ADN, especially the letters to the editor. What started out as a chuckle has now become a full belly laugh, reading opinions expressed against Sen. Dan Sullivan, and his vote to acquit former President Donald Trump.

I ask these letter writers, “Was Sen. Sullivan less of a carpetbagger last August? or last April? Anytime since his election?” No. As a 45-plus year Alaskan who has seen politicians of both political parties — state legislators, U.S. senators, Congressmen — come and go, here’s my opinion.

The Republican party has had a stranglehold on Alaska for many years; during that time, few politicians of that party stand out as honest, moral or looking out for fellow Alaskans. Gov. Jay Hammond and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens are among those few.

Now, I am adding Sen. Lisa Murkowski to my list. Unprecedented outrage is being heaped on her decision to convict Mr. Trump. I feel, unjustly so. She voted her conscience, and in support of the United States Constitution. But now, against Sen. Sullivan for his lack of conscience and against the Constitution: Did he have any less conscience last August, or April, or at any time since his election? No.

I learned to spell “Murkowski” years ago and know which box to check next November. As for Sen. Sullivan, the letter writers who condemn him for lack of conscience and call him carpetbagger; they had an opportunity to rid themselves of carpetbaggers. An opportunity not taken. Before they sit down at that keyboard, or put pen to paper, they should think to themselves, “Where was I on Nov. 3?”

— Susan K. Fegert

Willow

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: No-oil nightmare

6 hours 4 min ago

Great op-ed from Frank Baker about how oil is in everything we do. The mostly younger anti-oil population seems to not think about those kayaks and boards they enjoy are petroleum-based. Let’s not forget about how much is in the medical end of things. Cellphones; how could they survive without those?  

It’s easy to complain about something when not looking at the big picture.

— Liz Forsman

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Snowflakes

6 hours 8 min ago

Reliably, I shovel snow from our long driveway and common areas each snowfall. This is cathartic for me 98% of the time. I like to do a good job, make sure my work looks “pretty” and helps out the neighbors. I get a sense of accomplishment.

There’s fresh air, sparkly snow, beautiful surroundings, sunshine at times, and good exercise. New-fallen snow, if not wet, is 95% air. So it is light, flutters through the air when shoveled and makes for good exercise. After several hours of grooming the property, endorphins are increased. I feel toasty for hours and sleep like a baby.

Recently, as I walked to catch the Sunshine Shuttle — while others were on the road walking, skiing and dogs playing — I noticed how careful the driver of the huge snow plow was as he groomed the roads and passed all of us milling around. Our paths would cross twice. Not only was the driver safe and polite as he passed people, his work caught my eye.

The driver’s work seemed deliberate, well thought out and even like a work of art. This, I thought to myself, as I noticed the precision tracks of his turnarounds, at a perpendicular, appearing as a Celtic jewel. How brilliant was this!

I felt inspired to call the Mat-Su Borough to let the folks there know what a pleasure it was to have this driver working with such skill, and flair, in our neighborhood. I spoke with an employee who was a delight and expressed appreciation for the phone call. Spirits were lifted; we were supporting our community.

We too can support our community in helping our elders and those with medical issues, who may run risks if shoveling snow. Plowed snow increases tenfold in weight. Injuries can be common. Be mindful of berm barriers left in a neighbor’s driveway if using a plow. Some community members may be unable to remove heavy snow. This neighborly gesture will resonate, through our community, as the multitude of shapes of snowflakes.

— Deborah Morel

Talkeetna

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Senate committee advances Haaland nomination for interior secretary, with Murkowski joining Democrats

6 hours 46 min ago

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., listens during the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Some Republican senators labeled Haaland "radical" over her calls to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and address climate change, and said that could hurt rural America and major oil and gas-producing states. The label of Haaland as a "radical" by Republican lawmakers is getting pushback from Native Americans. (Jim Watson/Pool Photo via AP, File) (JIM WATSON/)

WASHINGTON — A key Senate committee on Thursday approved the nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be interior secretary, clearing the way for a Senate vote that is likely to make her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Haaland’s nomination 11-9, sending it to the Senate floor. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the lone Republican to support Haaland, who won unanimous backing from committee Democrats.

Murkowski, a former chair of the committee, said she had “real misgivings” about Haaland, because of her support for policies that Murkowski said could impede Alaska’s reliance on oil and other fossil fuels. But the senator said she would place her “trust” in Haaland’s word that she would work with her and other Alaskans to support the state.

Her vote comes with a warning, Murkowski added: She expects Haaland “will be true to her word” to help Alaska. Haaland was not in the committee room, but Murkowski addressed her directly, saying, “I will hold you to your commitments.″

“Quite honestly,″ Murkowski added, “we need you to be a success.″

[Sen. Murkowski is a critical player in Biden’s push for Republican support]

During Haaland’s hearings before the committee last week, Murkowski pressed Haaland over a letter she signed last year with four Democratic House colleagues, opposing the development of ConocoPhillips’ large Willow project.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also has raised concerns about restrictions that Haaland might place on Alaska projects.

Both Alaska senators have said they’re concerned about Haaland’s views on Alaska Native corporations. Haaland in May signed a letter with five Democratic House colleagues opposed to the corporations receiving part of the $8 billion in CARES Act money set aside for tribes. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the question of eligibility for the corporations, after several tribes sued the federal government last year.

Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young calls Haaland, a second-term congresswoman, a friend. While she won’t always agree with opposing lawmakers, she will listen to them, Young said as he introduced Haaland to the committee last week.

Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Maria Cantwell of Washington state both called the committee vote historic, and both said they were disappointed at the anti-Haaland rhetoric used by several Republicans. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the panel’s top Republican, and other GOP senators have repeatedly called Haaland’s views “radical” and extreme.

Heinrich said two Interior secretaries nominated by former President Donald Trump could be called “radical” for their support of expanded drilling and other resource extraction, but he never used that word to describe them. Under the leadership of Cantwell and Murkowski, the energy panel has been bipartisan and productive in recent years, Heinrich said, adding that he hopes that tradition continues.

The committee vote follows an announcement Wednesday by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that she will support Haaland in the full Senate. Her vote, along with Murkowski’s, makes Haaland’s confirmation by the Senate nearly certain.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin, announced his support for Haaland last week. Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, said Thursday that he does not agree with Haaland on a variety of issues, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but was impressed by the strong endorsement by Alaska Rep. Don Young, a conservative Republican who is the longest-serving member of the House and has forged a strong working relationship with the liberal Haaland.

As a former governor, Manchin also said he knows how important it is for a president to have his “team on board” in the Cabinet.

“It is long past time to give a Native American woman a seat at the Cabinet table,″ he said. Interior oversees the nation’s public lands and waters and leads relations with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes.

Barrasso, who has led opposition to Haaland, said her hostility to fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other issues made her unfit to serve in a position in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Barrasso said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands “is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.″ The moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost thousands of jobs in West, Barrasso said.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Alex DeMarban contributed to this report.

US unemployment claims tick up to 745,000 as layoffs remain high

8 hours 43 min ago

FILE - In this May 7, 2020, file photo, a person looks inside the closed doors of the Pasadena Community Job Center in Pasadena, Calif., during the coronavirus outbreak. A state report released Tuesday, March 2, 2021, details the pandemic's toll on California workers and shines light on who was most affected by job losses and layoffs. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File) (Damian Dovarganes/)

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits edged higher last week to 745,000, a sign that many employers continue to cut jobs despite a drop in confirmed viral infections and evidence that the overall economy is improving.

Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims rose by 9,000 from the previous week. Though the pace of layoffs has eased since the year began, they remain high by historical standards. Before the virus flattened the U.S. economy a year ago, applications for unemployment aid had never topped 700,000 in any week, even during the Great Recession.

All told, 4.3 million Americans are receiving traditional state unemployment benefits. Counting supplemental federal unemployment programs that were established to soften the economic damage from the virus, an estimated 18 million people are collecting some form of jobless aid.

In Texas, applications for benefits surged by nearly 18,000 in Texas in the aftermath of freezing weather and power outages. And jobless claims rose by more than 17,000 in Ohio, where the weekly totals have been thrown off by potentially fraudulent claims.

Restrictions on businesses and the reluctance of many Americans to shop, travel, dine out or attend mass events have weighed persistently on the job market. Job growth averaged a meager 29,000 a month from November through January, and the nation still has nearly 10 million fewer jobs than it did in February 2020. Though the unemployment rate was 6.3% in January, a broader measure that includes people who have given up on their job searches is closer to 10%.

“The source of all labor market damage continues to be COVID-19,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “Increased vaccine distribution is promising, since the public health situation must improve for there to be a full economic recovery. When we completely return to ‘normal’ is still unknown.”

The data firm Womply reports that 64% of movie theaters and other entertainment venues, 40% of bars and 34% of hair salons and beauty shops are closed. And on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve reported that across the country, “overall conditions in the leisure and hospitality sector continued to be restrained by ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.”

On Friday, though, economists have forecast that the government will report a strong job gain for February of near 200,000, which would raise hopes that layoffs will slow. Optimism is rising that increasing vaccinations and a new federal rescue aid package that will likely be enacted soon will spur growth and hiring in the coming months. Many analysts foresee the economy expanding at an annual rate of at least 5 percent in the current quarter and 7 percent for all of 2021.

Already, crucial sectors of the economy are showing signs of picking up as vaccinations increase, federal aid spreads through the economy and the Fed’s low-rate policies fuel borrowing and spending. Last month, America’s consumers bounced back from months of retrenchment to step up their spending by 2.4% — the sharpest increase in seven months and a sign that the economy may be poised to sustain a recovery.

The solid gain suggested that many people were growing more confident about spending, especially after receiving $600 checks that went to most adults early this year in a federal economic aid package. Additional relief is likely for American households and businesses as Congress considers President Joe Biden’s proposal for a new aid package amounting to $1.9 trillion.

At the same time, rising bond yields in the financial markets are pointing to worries that higher inflation could be on the way as the economy recovers. This week, Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, sought to calm investors by stressing that the Fed, while generally optimistic in its outlook, is still a long way off from raising interest rates or otherwise lessening its support for the economy.


Most COVID-19 deaths occurred in countries where majority of adults are overweight

9 hours 18 min ago

The vast majority of global coronavirus deaths occurred in nations with high levels of obesity, according to a new report linking overweight populations with more severe coronavirus-related illness and mortality.

The report, by the World Obesity Federation, found that 88% of deaths due to COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic were in countries where more than half of the population is classified as overweight, which it defines as having a body mass index (BMI) above 25. Obesity, generally defined as BMI above 30, is associated with particularly severe outcomes.

Among the nations with overweight populations above the 50% threshold were also those with some of the largest proportions of coronavirus deaths - including countries such as Britain, Italy and the United States. Some 2.7 million people have died around the world of COVID-19, more than 517,000 of which were in the United States.

In some cases, the correlations between coronavirus severity and weight are also tied to racial and ethnic inequality. In the United States, “Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black adults have a higher prevalence of obesity and are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report found that in countries where less than half of the adult population is classified as overweight, the likelihood of death from COVID-19 was about one-tenth of the levels in countries with higher shares of overweight adults. A higher BMI was also associated with increased risk of hospitalization, admission to intensive or critical care and the need for mechanically assisted ventilation.

In Britain, overweight coronavirus patients were 67% likelier to require intensive care, and obese patients three times likelier.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized and required oxygen therapy after contracting the disease last spring, has campaigned in recent months for Britons to lose weight to reduce health risks and support the country’s overburdened National Health Service.

Speaking last year, Johnson said he had long struggled with his weight and was “too fat” when he was sickened with the disease that has claimed more than 124,000 lives in the United Kingdom. He is often spotted out running near his home in central London alongside his personal trainer.

The World Obesity Federation findings were near-uniform across the globe, the report said, and found that increased body weight was the second greatest predictor after old age of hospitalization and higher risk of death of COVID-19.

As a result, the London-based federation urged governments to prioritize overweight people for coronavirus testing and vaccinations.

The United Nations warned in 2020 that obesity is a “global pandemic in its own right.”

Four reasons you’re tired of Zoom calls - and how to fix it

9 hours 19 min ago

(Getty Images) (fizkes/)

Jeremy Bailenson was exhausted. It was a Friday in late March and he had just finished his first full week working from home during the pandemic - nine-hour days spent glued to a laptop in a spare bedroom of his house.

Then, a reporter asked him to jump on another video call for an interview. He thought to himself: Why does this need to happen on video?

It’s been nearly a year since he first experienced that video-call-induced exhaustion — an early glimpse of what millions of others may have faced since beginning to work remotely. Now he’s published a paper outlining why video chats may exact such a mental toll, and suggesting how you can reduce fatigue.

“There was a transformation in that we went from rarely video conferencing to video conferencing very frequently and without really knowing the parameters of what the costs and the benefits are and how to really think about that,” Bailenson, a professor and founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said in an interview.

The peer-reviewed article, published late last month in the American Psychological Association’s Technology Mind and Behavior journal, draws on existing academic theory and research and argues there are four possible reasons for so-called “Zoom fatigue.” The paper, Bailenson writes, should not be perceived as “indicting” Zoom or other video conferencing platforms.

“I am a huge fan of what Zoom has done,” he said. “I just think asking yourself, ‘Do I really need to be on video for this?’ is a nice way to approach a moderation strategy towards your media day.”

The paper was widely shared on social media, and reactions poured in responding to Bailenson’s analysis. Some suggested his paper essentially called for a return to phone calls.

Why video calls can be exhausting

For one, the paper argues, there’s the excessive amount of direct eye gaze as people look at other faces close-up. It’s unnatural, and not what people would typically do in an in-person meeting. During a video call, everyone is often staring at the speaker and the listeners, whereas in-person, some people may glance at their notes or lean over to a colleague for a side conversation.

“Now listeners in a Zoom call are being stared at the same way speakers get stared at in the real world,” he said, pointing to public speaking as “one of the highest sources of anxiety that there is.”

There’s also the constant self evaluation. Seeing our own faces and gestures several hours a day on video is stressful and taxing, Bailenson said. Imagine if someone followed you around with a mirror during the work day “and made sure that everything you’re doing, you’re staring at your own face in real-time.”

“You wouldn’t be able to live your life that way, right?” he said. “That sounds insane.”

He said this occurs largely because the default setting on video platforms is to show people their own image.

Video chats also cut down on people’s ability to be mobile. Instead of walking and talking like you might be able to do during a phone call, video chats mostly force participants to stay in a fixed position.

“The problem with video - because culturally it’s kind of offensive if you’re not sitting in that frame and looking in the field of view of the camera - people sit still,” Bailenson said.

During in-person meetings, people may be more active, standing up and pacing, going to a whiteboard or doodling.

On top of all that, participating in video calls may increase cognitive load, meaning more mental effort is needed.

“In real conversation, you’re just talking. You’re gesturing. It’s the most natural thing in the world,” he said. “Now, things like turn-taking have to become deliberate. You have to think about ‘When am I going to unmute myself and click that button?’ And you have to think about ‘Well, I want to make sure they see that I like the idea, I’ve got to pretend slow clap in front of the camera.’”

All of those nonverbal gestures of communication - which are automatic during in-person interactions - now take extra mental effort for some people. Accessibility experts say the toll may be even higher for individuals with disabilities.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, an accessibility advocate, says her own disabilities have exacerbated her “Zoom fatigue.”

Byrne-Haber uses a wheelchair and also has moderate hearing loss, among other disabilities. Because she has to focus more intently on people’s faces during video calls to read lips, it increases her cognitive load, she said.

When there is automatic captioning on the video, the punctuation can be erratic, the words can be transcribed incorrectly and the caption is not always attributed to the speaker.

“Even when the captioning is good and you can keep up, all of these factors add up to higher levels of cognitive load which leaves less working memory to focus on the topic at hand,” she told The Washington Post in an email, adding: “I’m literally so drained at the end of the day where I have 13 30-minute meetings that I sometimes go to bed at 7.”

What’s next

By identifying potential causes of “Zoom fatigue” affecting the general population, Bailenson’s paper validates people’s experiences and shows them that they aren’t alone, said Suzan Song, an associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, who was not involved in the research. Suggestions for some simple changes to videoconferencing habits, she said, can help increase agency.

“It was a really nice and practical article that draws on current scientific theories around the phenomena that so many are experiencing right now with the relentless pandemic,” she said.

While Bailenson’s points are “useful for the here and now,” Song said she would like to see more studies build upon the paper, which provides a “really strong foundation to work off of.”

Andrew Bennett, an assistant professor of management at Old Dominion University, has a forthcoming paper with his own research on video conference fatigue. His study, which will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology, found results that differ from the arguments outlined in Bailenson’s article for what causes fatigue after these calls.

“I think that’s the nature of science, we do it different ways,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re still finding video conference fatigue happens and we’re still trying to figure out why.”

The next step for Bailenson is studying the psychological impacts of video conferencing practices. He and other researchers have devised a “Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale” questionnaire and are gathering responses about people’s experiences with video calls. About 10,000 people have already completed the survey, Bailenson said.

Bailenson also said he has heard from Zoom’s chief product officer and is planning to speak to the company to suggest possible interface changes.

In a statement to The Post, Zoom acknowledged the transition into regular video conferencing has been seamless for some, and a challenge for others. “We’re all learning this new way of communicating and adjusting to the blurred lines between work and personal interactions,” the company said.

In the meantime, Bailenson’s paper offers some ideas for how to address the potential causes of fatigue. He and other experts say people, particularly managers who have more control over meetings, can try various changes to make video conferencing less taxing.

Two easy potential fixes are hiding self-view and minimizing the video call screen, Bailenson said. On Zoom, for instance, you can right click your video display and select the “Hide Myself” option, which removes self-view but allows others in the meeting to still see you.

Meeting hosts should also give people breaks to look away from their screens during video calls, Song said. Whenever she is running a group call, she said she asks attendees to take 30 seconds or a minute to look around the room they’re in and count the number of corners they see. The activity, Song said, can provide reprieve from the intensity of staring at the speaker or other meeting attendees and may lessen cognitive load.

Similarly, Bailenson said it’s important to remember that you can move around “just like you would in a real meeting.”

For those who may be feeling disconnected, Bennett suggested finding time for “informal chit chat” or smaller side conversations that used to organically occur during in-person situations. “To create a sense of shared belonginess and shared connectedness with people really matters,” he said.

While these tips may help alleviate the effects of “Zoom fatigue,” Bailenson urged people to remember video calls aren’t the only effective way to communicate.

“We have to take a step back and realize that just because you can be in a video conference doesn’t mean that you have to,” Bailenson said. “There were many decades in this world in which the phone worked just fine, didn’t it?”

Myanmar’s violent crackdown on protesters, widely filmed, sparks outrage

9 hours 58 min ago

Anti-coup protesters standing behind barricades standoff with a group of police in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, March 4, 2021. Demonstrators in Myanmar protesting last month's military coup returned to the streets Thursday, undaunted by the killing of at least 38 people the previous day by security forces. (AP Photo) (STR/)

YANGON, Myanmar — Footage of a brutal crackdown on protests against a coup in Myanmar unleashed outrage and calls for a stronger international response Thursday, a day after 38 people were killed. Videos showed security forces shooting a person at point-blank range and chasing down and savagely beating demonstrators.

Despite the shocking violence the day before, protesters returned to the streets Thursday to denounce the military’s Feb. 1 takeover — and were met again with tear gas.

The international response to the coup has so far been fitful, but a flood of videos shared online showing security forces brutally targeting protesters and other civilians led to calls for more action. The United States called the images appalling, the U.N. human rights chief said it was time to “end the military’s stranglehold over democracy in Myanmar,” and the world body’s independent expert on human rights in the country urged the Security Council to watch the videos before meeting Friday to discuss the crisis.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip in recent years, the international community lifted most sanctions and poured in investment.

U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, described Wednesday as “the bloodiest day” since the takeover, when the military ousted the elected government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi. More than 50 civilians, mostly peaceful protesters, are confirmed to have been killed by police and soldiers since then, including the 38 she said died Wednesday.

“I saw today very disturbing video clips,” said Schraner Burgener, speaking to reporters at the U.N. in New York via video link from Switzerland. “One was police beating a volunteer medical crew. They were not armed. Another video clip showed a protester was taken away by police and they shot him from very near, maybe only one meter. He didn’t resist to his arrest, and it seems that he died on the street.”

She appeared to be referring to a video shared on social media that begins with a group of security forces following a civilian, who they seem to have just pulled out of a building. A shot rings out, and the person falls. After the person briefly raises their head, two of the troops drag the person down the street by the arms.

In other footage, about two dozen security forces, some with their firearms drawn, chase two people wearing the construction helmets donned by many protesters down a street. When they catch up to the people, they repeatedly beat them with rods and kick them. One of the officers is filming the scene on his cell phone.

In yet another video, several police officers repeatedly kick and hit a person with rods, while the person cowers on the ground, hands over their head. Officers move in and out of the frame, getting a few kicks in and then casually walking away.

While some countries have imposed or threatened to impose sanctions following the coup, others, including those neighboring Myanmar, have been more hesitant in their response. The sheer volume of violent images shared Wednesday, along with the high death toll, raised hopes that the dynamic could change.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Thursday urged all of those with “information and influence” to hold military leaders to account.

“This is the moment to turn the tables towards justice and end the military’s stranglehold over democracy in Myanmar,” she said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was “appalled” at the “horrific violence,” and the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said the “systematic brutality of the military junta is once again on horrific display.”

“I urge members of the UN Security Council to view the photos/videos of the shocking violence being unleashed on peaceful protesters before meeting,” he said on Twitter.

The Security Council has scheduled closed-door consultations for Friday on calls to reverse the coup — including from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres — and stop the escalating crackdown.

But Justine Chambers, the associate director of the Myanmar Research Center at the Australian National University, said that while the graphic images would no doubt lead to strong condemnations — action on Myanmar would be harder.

“Unfortunately I don’t think the brutality caught on camera is going to change much,” she said. “I think domestic audiences around the world don’t have much of an appetite for stronger action, i.e. intervention, given the current state of the pandemic and associated economic issues.”

Any kind of coordinated action at the U.N. will be difficult since two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto it.

Even if the council did take action, U.N. envoy Schraner Burgener cautioned it might not make much of a difference. She said she warned Myanmar’s army that the world’s nations and the Security Council “might take huge strong measures.”

“And the answer was, ‘We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past,’” she said. When she also warned that Myanmar would become isolated, Schraner Burgener said, “the answer was, ‘We have to learn to walk with only a few friends.’”

Wednesday’s highest death toll was in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, where an estimated 18 people died. Video at a hospital in the city showed grieving relatives collecting the blood-soaked bodies of family members. Some relatives sobbed uncontrollably, while others looked in shock at the scene around them.

Protesters gathered again Thursday in Yangon. Police again used tear gas to try to disperse the crowds, while demonstrators again set up barriers across major roads.

Protests also continued in Mandalay, where three people were reported killed Wednesday. A formation of five fighter planes flew over the city on Thursday morning in what appeared to be a show of force.

Protesters in the city flashed the three-fingered salute that is a symbol of defiance as they rode their motorbikes to follow a funeral procession for Kyal Sin, also known by her Chinese name Deng Jia Xi, a university student who was shot dead as she attended a demonstration the day before.

As part of the crackdown, security forces have also arrested well over a thousand people, including journalists, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. On Saturday, at least eight journalists, including Thein Zaw of The Associated Press, were detained. He and several other members of the media have been charged with violating a public safety law that could see them imprisoned for up to three years.

US traffic deaths spike even as pandemic cuts miles traveled

10 hours 1 min ago

DETROIT — Pandemic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders kept many drivers off U.S. roads and highways last year. But those who did venture out found open lanes that only invited reckless driving, leading to a sharp increase in traffic-crash deaths across the country.

The nonprofit National Safety Council estimates in a report issued Thursday that 42,060 people died in vehicle crashes in 2020, an 8% increase over 2019 and the first jump in four years.

Plus, the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven spiked 24%, the largest annual percentage increase since the council began collecting data in 1923.

And even though traffic is now getting close to pre-coronavirus levels, the bad behavior on the roads is continuing, authorities say.

“It’s kind of terrifying what were seeing on our roads,” said Michael Hanson, director of the Minnesota Public Safety Department’s Office of Traffic Safety. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of risk-taking behavior.”

Last year’s deaths were the most since 2007 when 43,945 people were killed in vehicle crashes. In addition, the safety council estimates that 4.8 million people were injured in crashes last year.

Federal data shows that Americans drove 13% fewer miles last year, or roughly 2.8 trillion miles, said Ken Kolosh, the safety council’s manager of statistics. Yet the number of deaths rose at an alarming rate, he said.

“The pandemic appears to be taking our eyes off the ball when it comes to traffic safety,” Kolosh said.

Of the reckless behaviors, early data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show speed to be the top factor, Kolosh said. Also, tests of trauma center patients involved in traffic crashes show increased use of alcohol, marijuana and opiods, he said.

In Minnesota, traffic volumes fell 60% when stay-home orders were issued early in the pandemic last spring. Hanson said state officials expected a corresponding drop in crashes and deaths, but while crashes declined, deaths increased.

“Almost immediately the fatality rate started to go up, and go up significantly,” Hanson said, adding that his counterparts in other states saw similar increases. “It created less congestion and a lot more lane space for divers to use, and quite honestly, to abuse out there.”

In late March and early April, the number of speed-related fatalities more than doubled over the same period in 2019 in the state, Hanson said. Last year, Minnesota recorded 395 traffic deaths, up nearly 9% from 364 in 2019.

Drivers also used the empty roads to drive extreme speeds. In 2019, the Minnesota State Patrol’s 600 troopers handed out tickets to just over 500 drivers for going over 100 mph (160 kph). That number rose to 1,068 in 2020, Hanson said.

Traveling over 100 mph makes crashes far more severe, the safety council said.

The high number of speeding drivers is continuing even as traffic is starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to Hanson.

The safety council is calling for equitable enforcement of traffic laws, infrastructure improvements, mandatory ignition switch locks for convicted drunken drivers, reducing speed limits to match roadway designs, and laws banning cellphone use while driving, among other recommendations to stem the deaths.

The council collects fatal crash data from states on public and private roads. The numbers released on Thursday are preliminary, but every year are only slightly different from the final numbers, Kolosh said.


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