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Coronavirus could overwhelm developing world

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 21:01

Peru tried to do everything right. Officials declared an early national lockdown — and backed it up with 16,000 arrests. Yet confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are surging, up nearly 60% since last weekend.

In Egypt, observers say a repressive government is vastly undercounting the infected. In Brazil, where the president has dubbed Latin America's largest outbreak a "fantasy," numbers are skyrocketing.

New York hospitals and Italian villages are the current front lines of the global pandemic. But epidemiologists and other public health experts say the coronavirus is poised to spread dangerously south, engulfing developing nations already plagued by fraying health-care systems, fragile governments and impoverished populations for whom social distancing can be practically impossible.

They warned of an amplified global crisis in the coming weeks, striking nations that can least afford it at a time when wealthy countries are likely to be too preoccupied with outbreaks of their own to offer the kind of assistance they've extended during episodes of disease that were confined to the developing world. Add in the extreme population density and poor sanitary conditions in vast urban slums, and experts warn that the pain of the pandemic is about to tilt quickly from richer nations to poorer ones.

“In three to six weeks, Europe and America will continue in the throes of this — but there is no doubt the center will move to places like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and Monrovia,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “We need to be very worried.”

It's unknown whether the virus will decline as spring and summer come to the Northern Hemisphere. But if so, there's rising concern that it will nonetheless continue to build and spread in the Southern Hemisphere winter, raising the potential for retransmission to North America, Europe and Asia later this year.

“There is certainly a significant risk,” said Stephen Morisson, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is a highly fast moving, highly transmissible virus that is expected to continue its circulation around the planet. Downstream, as we approach the next wave — winter 2020-2021 — we have to be worried about importation of the virus from the Southern Hemisphere.”

The pandemic is already confronting some of the world's poorest nations with their greatest economic challenge in decades. Income losses in the developing world are expected to exceed $220 billion, the United Nations warned on Monday. Nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost.

Wealthy European governments are paying furloughed workers the majority of their salaries, and millions of Americans who lose their jobs will have access to unemployment benefits. But billions of people in Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean work in the informal economy, living life on the margins with little to no social safety net.

They are street vendors, house cleaners, motorcycle-taxi drivers. They live off what they earn for the day. They frequently lack property, or savings. Running water. Refrigerators. They're being told to distance themselves socially while they sleep in rooms crammed in some cases with a dozen or more people.

Umm Muhammad, a single mother in Alexandria, Egypt, has lived without a salary since the outbreak forced the clothing factory where she worked to close three weeks ago.

"We are the people who are below rock bottom," she said. "Now we are perishing."

In Egypt, experts fear the number of infected could be at least 10 times greater than the 609 confirmed by the authoritarian government. Officials dispute such estimates, and forced a Western journalist to leave the country in March for publishing them.

Without her $75 monthly salary, Umm Muhammad has cut back on meat and vegetables for her family. Now she's grappling with a critical decision: whether to spend her limited reserves on food, or the face mask doctors recommend for her daughter with cancer. A high-quality mask costs 100 Egyptian pounds, or nearly $7.

"If I am going to slave for a hundred pounds, should I use it to buy a single face mask for my daughter or to buy her food?" she asked. "And where can I get money now?"

India, one of the first nations in the world to impose social distancing rules, has reported 1,397 cases of covid-19. Analysts say the health system would not be equipped to deal with larger numbers. The country has 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States has 2.8. South Korea has 12.3.

Experts say there's no official count of intensive-care beds or ventilators. Mumbai anesthesiologist Atul Kulkarni, editor of the Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine, has estimated there are about 67,000 intensive-care beds in the country of 1.3 billion. State-level resources paint a grimmer picture: One study found that Madhya Pradesh, home to more than 70 million people, had just 1,816 intensive-care beds.

A spike in infections would quickly overwhelm those resources. In a worst-case scenario, a group of epidemiologists and biostatisticians predicted, India could have 915,000 infections by May 15. To prepare, India has banned the export of goods that could be crucial in the fight against the coronavirus, including ventilators, surgical masks and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, now being studied as a possible treatment for covid-19 — a decision that could complicate the ability of other developing nations to obtain them.

Ibrahima Soce Fall, the World Health Organization’s assistant director general for emergency response, said the extent to which the virus spreads in a country depends on how authorities manage their first clusters — “and a lot of countries are not responding well.” One silver lining, he said, is that outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola have trained some developing countries to hew closely to WHO advice - something many are now rigorously doing.

"In Congo, we were dealing with more than 6,000 alerts per day during the recent Ebola outbreak," he said. "Of course, Congo or others would not be able to contend with a huge covid-19 outbreak. That's why the beginning is so crucial."

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are moving to offer billions of dollars in emergency loans to poor and middle-income nations. But they have warned it's unlikely to be enough, and some developing nations will require substantial debt relief.

Citizens of poor nations living under weak or repressive governments are at particular risk of finding themselves cast toward the bottom of the global scrum for scarce medicines and ventilators.

In many countries, assessing the scope of the outbreak remains the most basic challenge. In Peru, a stable, proactive government won praise for rapidly accelerating testing — one reason for a recent surge in confirmed cases. In Bolivia, meanwhile, a precarious transitional government has struggled with limited capacity for testing, averaging only about 12 results per day.

"We have some countries that we are more concerned about," said Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization. "The top priority are places like Haiti, where they have a very weak health system, and Venezuela, where they have very limited access to medicines."

In socialist Venezuela — where broken hospitals struggle with a lack of power or water, acute shortages of medicine and supplies, and nonfunctioning equipment — experts estimate there are fewer than 200 functioning ICU beds for a nation of roughly 30 million. Critics say the government is undercounting the infected; at least four journalists have been arrested for reporting on suspected cases.

"If we start getting large numbers of patients, we will collapse," said Maria Eugenia Landaeta, head of the infectious diseases department at Caracas University Hospital. "Long lines of patients waiting, all beds full and patients we won't be able to hospitalize. To sum up: total chaos."

In the developing world, the pandemic is setting the vast gap between small enclaves of rich elites and the poor masses in stark relief. In Nairobi's wealthy neighborhoods, for instance, restaurants are closed, streets are deserted, and the pantries and freezers of big houses behind gated compounds are stocked with food for weeks. But the city's vast slums, where the majority of its 4 million residents live, remain bustling by necessity.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew — intended to encourage social distancing — has seen security forces unleash beatings and tear gas, and counterproductively corral detainees into groups.

Joy Okumu, 48, sells tomatoes in the sprawling Nairobi shantytown of Kibera to feed her five children.

"Our lives cannot stop," she said. "We are poor people. We work with our hands and not the computer. If everything stops, we die."

Some in warm, tropical nations are trying to find comfort in the hope that warmer climates will slow or kill the virus. But the science behind that belief remains unproven, experts say, and complacency is a threat.

In Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, with the most reported cases, the government response has been a stew of presidential inattention, infighting and contradictory signals that health experts fear could yield devastating consequences. The most populous states, on the country's southeastern coast, have effectively shut down. But President Jair Bolsonaro has called the crisis a "fantasy" driven by a "a little cold." In a national address last week, he called on Brazilians to return to the streets, commerce and schools. Then he boasted that if he were infected, he would overcome the disease with his athletic physical strength.

The federal inaction has overlaid a political crisis on top of a public health crisis as new cases skyrocket.

Paulo Roberto Nunes, 52, sells peanuts in Rocinha, Rio's largest favela. He says he can't stop working. Nunes has five children, four of whom live with him, so he's still walking nearly empty streets, pushing his peanut cart.

“I would like to stay home to try to stop the disease from spreading,” he said. “But who will put food on the table? What does a person like me do?”

Virus hot spots clamor for quick tests; administration officials debate where to send them

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 20:43

A 5-minute test kit for COVID-19 developed by Abbott Laboratories sits on a table ahead of a briefing by President Donald Trump about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, March 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Alex Brandon/)

WASHINGTON — As Abbott Laboratories began shipping its new rapid-response tests across the country Wednesday, a new flashpoint emerged in the nation’s handling of the pandemic: where to ship the covid-19 diagnostics that could be one of the most effective tools in combating the outbreak.

Some White House officials want to ship many of the tests, which were approved Friday and can deliver results in five to 13 minutes, to areas where there are fewer cases, such as rural areas and parts of the South. But officials in hard-hit areas and some public health experts favor directing them to the outbreak's current hot spots, arguing that delays in test readings have sidelined many first responders and health care workers and made it harder to isolate the most contagious patients.

During a Tuesday meeting of the White House coronavirus task force in the Situation Room, Vice President Mike Pence and other officials discussed diverting new tests to areas where there are relatively few cases, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

They said the administration needs "to figure out the spread in places where we don't quite understand it now," according to one of the individuals present. The final consensus seemed to be, "Let's send it to the South and low-density areas."

The lag in delivering test results is taking a toll on communities across the country, depriving them of workers who can respond to medical emergencies and sowing uncertainty among hospital officials deciding what precautions to take. The competition for machines is so intense that governors and mayors have begun personally calling Abbott executives to negotiate orders.

In beleaguered Detroit, which now has one of the nation’s highest rates of infection and one of the fastest-rising death tolls, Mayor Mike Duggan said Wednesday that he secured the cellphone number of Miles White — the chairman and outgoing chief executive of Abbott Labs — and woke him up Sunday morning to beg for the test, because he knew the whole country would be calling. He said the fact that he struck a deal for five machines and 5,000 kits would be a “game changer,” allowing firefighters, police and nurses to get back on the job and out of quarantine.

Atop the shuttered Greektown Hotel in the city's casino district, where some police officers have begun staying overnight this week to avoid the risk of infecting their own families, the message "#DETROITSTRONG" blazes night and day.

Five-hundred-twenty-five officers in Detroit's police force of more than 2,500 officers are quarantined, according to spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood. Eighty-five members are expected to return to work by the end of this week, she said, and 91 have tested positive.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., whose district includes the neighboring city of Dearborn, said in a phone interview Tuesday that some of her constituents are waiting as long as two weeks to get results from tests sent out of state and to private companies.

"You need to know whether it's safe for someone to go out, and we need to keep them safe as well," Dingell said, adding that local police and fire chiefs are struggling to deal with employees who are isolating themselves while they await test results.

"We can't afford to wait for another week," one wrote her.

Abbott spokesman John Koval, whose firm started shipping 50,000 tests per day on Wednesday, said, "We're working with the administration to deploy them where they will have the greatest impact." He would not elaborate, but said states across the country had already begun to receive and use them.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said in an interview that his state needs at least 100,000 more tests than it has.

"We've talked to Abbott. They're shortly supposed to have a small amount of testing machines out to the states. No governor in America has received any yet," Hogan said. "They've said they are available. They are not yet available. They say, 'Get on the phone, governors can get all these things.' I just got off the phone with all the governors, no governors have these things."

Public health experts say tests are needed everywhere — as much as several hundred thousand a day. “Hot zones need them the most,” said Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale University’s medical school and director of the Yale New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, “but everyone needs them.”

Joshua Sharfstein, former Maryland health commissioner and now a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said any decisions to send them to the South "instead of to hot spots like that would have to be part of a plan with a scientific rationale. And I haven't seen one at this point."

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has delayed launching mobile testing sites, partly because he doesn't have an adequate supply of tests and personal protective equipment. But he noted in a news conference Tuesday that the turnaround time for tests matters as well, since officials are trying to ensure that they have access to a lab outside the state that "can turn it around in enough time to where it can be helpful. We'd like to get reports back in 48 hours."

That's not what's happening now.

In California, the backlog for getting test results is staggering. While about 86,100 tests had been conducted as of March 30, about 28,704 results had been delivered and another 57,400 were pending. The numbers include data California has received from commercial, private and academic labs, including Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp, Kaiser, the University of California, Stanford University, and 22 state and county health labs.

Even though widely used test analyses take four hours, shortages of the large costly machines used for those analyses have caused bottlenecks, forcing patients to wait four or more days for test results.

On March 18, as the pandemic deepened, the American Clinical Laboratory Association appealed in vain to congressional leaders to include $5 billion in legislation to help private laboratories meet growing demand for tests and analysis. Some test providers feared that Medicaid might reimburse a fraction of costs. And the laboratory companies are already hurting from a drop in other business. Quest, in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Tuesday said it had suffered a 40% drop in overall volume during the last two weeks of March, even after including testing for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

There are now more than a dozen major players in the testing world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own labs, but on Feb. 29 it appealed to hospitals and private companies for help. Since then, private companies have churned out as many as 84,000 tests daily, and have accounted for about three-quarters of the 1,064,506 tests completed as of April 1.

The biggest companies that have jumped into covid-19 testing include Roche, Labcorp, and Quest, established names in laboratory analysis. They have ramped up quickl. LabCorp, for example, has the ability to perform more than 20,000 coronavirus tests per day, and has performed more than 250,000 tests overall since the company first began testing for covid-19 on March 5. Quest said on March 24 that its capacity would soon reach 30,000. But it still takes either company routinely four to five days to release test results to health-care providers.

"This timeframe can vary based on demand, the length of time to transport the specimen to LabCorp's test facilities, and the prioritization of patients (as defined by healthcare authorities and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, HHS and other health authorities)," Labcorp said in a statement, referring to the Health and Human Services Department.

Scott Becker, a spokesman for the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said in an email that delays of results are pervasive across private and public labs.

"These backlogs are system-wide issues that point to supply shortages, equipment shortages and shortages of qualified staff," he said. "These tests aren't like a simple blood test, they are deemed highly complex tests that require skilled scientific staff."

The new Abbott test involves putting a sample from a nasal swab in a 6.6-pound toaster-size device, which will give results back in five to 13 minutes. The new test will be used only in medical facilities. The company says it will provide 50,000 of the testing kits a day and has distributed 18,000 of the analytical devices.

For primary care physicians, Abbott's technology is largely out of reach. Gary Bergman, senior physician at Children's Medical Associates of Northern Virginia, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he and his partners looked into buying one of the firm's machines, but it would cost between $12,000 and $15,000, and they couldn't say how many covid-19 tests they could supply or what they would cost.

“It doesn’t pay. It’s not practical,” said Bergman, who continue to see sick children and newborns even though business has dipped by two-thirds.

Wasilla’s first positive COVID-19 test among 10 new cases confirmed in Alaska

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 20:09

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State officials announced 10 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska on Wednesday evening, bringing the state’s total to 143, with no new deaths or hospitalizations.

Of the new confirmed cases, there were three in Fairbanks, two each in Anchorage and North Pole, one each in Juneau and Ketchikan, and Wasilla saw its first confirmed case.

One of the new cases involved someone age 19-29, eight were 30-59 and 1 was over the age of 60, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. Two were close contacts of individuals who tested positive, and the rest remain under investigation, Zink said in a media briefing Wednesday evening. So far, 5,022 tests have been completed, Zink said.

In Fairbanks, a third resident at the Denali Center — a care facility operated by Foundation Health Partners — tested positive for COVID-19, officials there said. The resident, a woman over the age of 90, was doing well along with two other residents who previously tested positive for the disease, center administrator Liz Woodyard said Wednesday afternoon.

Also Wednesday, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum said the state was extending two of its health mandates: one pertaining to the closure of restaurants and bars to dine-in service and the closure of entertainment facilities such as theaters and gyms, and another mandate related to the closure of state-operated libraries and archives to the public.

Both of those mandates have been “extended until rescinded,” Crum said.

Other Alaska health mandates currently in effect include a statewide shelter-in-place order (along with the closure of nonessential businesses) and an in-state travel ban. Both of those mandates will be reevaluated by April 11, state officials said. People traveling to Alaska from outside the state must also self-quarantine themselves for two weeks.

Health care workers and officials continue to learn more about the virus and the symptoms it presents, Zink said. Initially, the traditional symptoms of COVID-19 were fever, shortness of breath, coughing and body aches. But now, there’s more evidence that an early symptom could be a loss of taste or smell. And, particularly in the elderly, some may experience nausea, diarrhea or vomiting, Zink said.

One challenging aspect of the disease is that others may not show those symptoms until as many as 13 days after being exposed, Zink said. Some people may even have such mild symptoms that they might not realize they were sick at all.

“And that’s making it really difficult to control this disease,” Zink said.

One concern is that people who feel well don’t realize they might be sick and could be possibly spreading illness to others who are more vulnerable and might become much sicker from a COVID-19 infection, Zink said.

Preventing that spread, whether someone feels sick or not, is key.

Zink asked that N95 and surgical masks be reserved for health care workers, but said that homemade masks could be a way to potentially prevent accidentally spreading the illness to others. But a homemade mask likely won’t prevent someone from contracting the illness, she said, highlighting other recommending disease prevention measures.

“Realize that the mask is not going to prevent the disease completely,” Zink said. “And so, the social distancing matters, the hand washing matters, the not touching your face matters, those things are just as important if not more important.”

Zink said that in an ideal world, Alaska wouldn’t experience a peak in COVID-19 cases, where the need outpaces the state’s health care capacity. Instead, she said she hoped that cases would occur on a flatter curve, as treatments, vaccines and more capacity become available.

“That’s the hope — that there is no peak,” Zink said.

But, she said, the state is preparing for worst-case scenarios.

In places like Washington state, where there was an outbreak of COVID-19, officials took steps to stem further spread through cluster investigations and stricter social distancing, she said. Similarly, Alaska might see a cluster of outbreaks in certain places and then officials would work to minimize that spread.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a dance around the state,” Zink said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy compared the pandemic to watching a large storm’s approach. Sometimes, that storm never materializes, he said. Similarly, Dunleavy said his hope is that a lot of people won’t get sick and will not die from the illness.

“I hope and pray — and I think most Alaskans do — that this is the pandemic that wasn’t,” Dunleavy said.

With seeds harder to come by, here are some ideas for Alaska gardeners

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 19:59

Yippee! It is April, which means lights are no longer needed to germinate and grow healthy garden starts from seeds. We have plenty of natural light to handle virtually any seed you want to try now that okra has been grown successfully here.

This assumes you have seeds.

Herein lies a problem for some in Alaska — and, I notice, in enough places around the country to warrant an article in the Washington Post. Many were late getting seeds, dealing instead with things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. (Where are your priorities, America?) Now many are in lockdown, uncertain if they will ever leave the house.

What to do?

Well, obviously, there are still some things you can still mail-order, wait a week while it gets shipped and then germinate and be timely for the Alaska gardening season.

Then there are nurseries. Just because we gardeners think nurseries are essential businesses, doesn’t mean by the time you read this the government agrees. You should look on websites of local nurseries and call around and see if the seed you want is available and if the establishment is open. Hardware stores carry seeds. So do supermarkets. Follow the rules and practice physical distancing.

OK, but what if we can’t get seeds? What are we to do?

The obvious answer in normal times would be to share seeds, and it is even more applicable when times are extraordinary. Many of us have extra seeds from prior years, as most don’t use the entire package least we be inundated by excess. So why not pass them along?

Start by letting your friends know you have extra seeds. Just tell them and make arrangements for a drop-off or pick-up. You might even swap starts this way once the weather gets warmer and we can leave plants outside on doorsteps and porches or in driveways.

I am thinking there is at least another way to get seeds to those without, and that is to use those little library boxes that have popped up all over America, the ones where you can take a book or leave a book while out on a friendly walk or jog. What if we were to leave seeds in them, too? Just for the next few weeks? I know this must break the rules, but if you have a ribbon or a Daily News wrapper, tie it onto one of the handles so folks will know there are seeds available. Let’s give it a try. No one should have to go without seeds.

Of course all this begs the question, how do you know your old seeds are viable? There is only one way and that is to start them and see what happens. Yes, I know there are proper ways to keep seeds and yours were not kept that way, but what have you to lose? Especially if you can’t find new seeds.

And if you can’t get seeds, at least concentrate on what you do have. Take everything out of storage: fuchsia, dahlias, tuberous begonias, pelargoniums, rhodochitons and spring flowering bulbs. What are you waiting for, the snow to melt? If you can’t get to a nursery to get starts, these will have to do.

Take cuttings from pelargoniums to multiply plants. You know the rule: let them callous over for 48 hours and then root in damp sand or soil. Those new shoots on the fuchsia, carefully removed as you shape your plants, make great cuttings and will all turn into individual plants with just a bit of care. Root them as you would the pelargoniums, only don’t wait 48 hours.

I have heard of people cutting their tuberous begonias in half to get a duplicate of the same variety. I haven’t tried, but why not do so on a few — but not all, just in case! Rhodochitons stored usually have seed pods, and the seeds germinate easily. Dahlia clumps should be cut so that each tuber has a bit of last year’s stem or neck. This should result in several new plants, at least, when each is put into soil with the neck up at the surface.

Remember, do not wash the roots of any stored plants. Leave the soil on them. If you don’t have the appropriate mycorrhizal fungi to apply before planting things up, at least this soil should have some spores and propagules from last season.

No able to get soil? It is perfectly fine in my book — literally — to use last year’s soil. You may want to mix in some compost now or top dress later and perhaps add some low-nitrogen fertilizer, but the idea of using sterile soil is an old-fashioned one.

If you are missing something, reach out. We are all in this together. Gardeners always have been.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar:

Nurseries: Nurseries are open in Anchorage and I hope elsewhere. Wear a mask and follow the rules! We are lucky to have them. Please give them your business, as they were planning on a normal spring. If you want to have them here next year, we need to make sure they survive.

Lilies: If you have been growing yours indoors, take them outdoors and keep them there until planted. Use a nice, wind-protected area in the shade.

Flowers to start from seed: Dianthus, stock, lock spar, asters, Nicotiana, cleome, ice plant, zinnia and salpiglossis. schizanthus, nigella, phlox, portulaca, nemesia, marigold and nasturtiums.

Vegetables: Broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower.

Gladioli: What are you waiting for?

Alaska alcohol regulators move to allow to-go sales of beer and wine from restaurants

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 19:20

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Alaska’s Alcohol Control Board voted on two measures Wednesday that, if approved by the governor, would relax alcohol laws during the coronavirus pandemic to ease the financial pain it is inflicting on restaurants.

The board unanimously approved to-go sales of factory-sealed beer and wine from any bar or restaurant currently licensed to sell such products on premises, with or without food.

It also unanimously voted to allow curbside pickup of products from liquor stores and other manufacturers, such as breweries.

The board was not sure if it actually has the legal authority to change the laws, so the votes act as advice to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, requesting that he suspend laws barring such commerce.

Discussion of delivery of alcohol, whether by a restaurant employee or a third-party service, did not result in a vote. Board member Charlie Cross was absent from the meeting.

“We’ve beat it to death. I’m going to call for the question and we’re going to beg for forgiveness later,” board chair Glenn Brady said before calling up the motion regarding curbside sales of liquor.

None of the changes will go into effect unless Dunleavy gives his approval. Sarah Oates, president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said she doesn’t know when that will be, but hopes it’s soon.

Oates said she has been inundated with calls from the industry and the public asking for relief. This, she said, won’t substantially change the financial situation for bars and restaurants that are closed to on-premises consumers, but maybe it helps some break even, or prevent more job losses.

Oates said 44 other states have relaxed alcohol laws to help the industry during the pandemic.

Her members are “frankly furious that our state has neglected to take any action whatsoever to help the industry in this regard," she said. "We’re one of six, and it’s insulting to many Alaskans.”

Oates said about a week ago she met with former Gov. Sean Parnell and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who lead Dunleavy’s new Economic Stabilization Team.

“I will likely reach out again to the governor’s office, maybe more directly to his team, about this concept and see where we go," Oates said after the board meeting.

The board discussed the matter for nearly an hour, with Brady and members Dana Walukiewicz and Rex Leath voicing hesitation about voting in favor of any changes during the meeting. They favored postponing a decision for a week to get input from Dunleavy.

They were eventually swayed by Oates, board member Sara Erickson and industry attorney Jessica Brown, who pushed for a vote.

“It is my intent to grant this for the industry now,” Erickson said. “I don’t think we need to put it off a week. The crisis is now.”

Oates said CHARR did a poll of restaurants on March 23, finding 7% said they were closing permanently. On Wednesday, that number doubled.

“We are grasping at straws right now to try to just keep as much of our industry still in business as possible,” she said.

Brown argued that if no relief comes for the struggling industry, hundreds to thousands of jobs could be lost.

Brown said a lawsuit challenging any regulation changes would take months or years to play out, well after any changes have already been reversed. There is minimal legal risk, she said, and the board must act now.

“I would go so far as to say it’s the board’s moral obligation to do so,” she said.

Legality “is a question for down the road," Brown said.

Watch live: Gov. Dunleavy, state officials to give update on COVID-19 and health mandates

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 16:42

[ADN mobile app users: You can watch the briefing here.]

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, along with Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum, will announce updates to COVID-19 state health mandates in a media briefing at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, will give an update on cases in Alaska, and Alaska Department of Education and Early Development commissioner Michael Johnson will discuss a virtual school program announced Wednesday.

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In an Alaska town where almost everyone lives under the same roof, the pandemic threat feels different

Anchorage man who resold face masks online at inflated prices now faces steep fines

School bus teams bring meals to students in need during the coronavirus shutdown

Third resident tests positive for COVID-19 at Fairbanks care facility

Judge says Alaska government can keep workers in offices during coronavirus pandemic

Vote for Proposition 13. And hold the municipality accountable.

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 16:32

People get off a bus at a temporary homeless shelter, setup in the Sullivan Arena, on Saturday, March 21, 2020. The Municipality of Anchorage is converting both the Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Ice Arena into emergency homeless shelters, which will allow for people to sleep at least 6 feet apart in the hopes of controlling the transmission of COVID-19. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Proposition 13 would enact a 5% tax on alcohol and dedicate an estimated $11-15 million per year to police, criminal justice, and first responders; address child abuse, sexual and domestic violence; and behavioral health prevention, detox and treatment programs to “prevent and address Anchorage’s homelessness crisis.”

This is a tax on a product that has an economic cost to the state of Alaska into the billions of dollars. Consumers of alcohol who visit the greatest human and social costs on our community (in the form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, negligent and abusive parenting, crime, victimization, homelessness, and medical and behavioral health, etc.) would end up paying a greater share of those costs. I need no other reason to vote in favor of Proposition 13. An influx of $11-15 million per year would clearly help offset these costs.

I have some pause in that I see no specific dedication to addressing the elephant in the room of the “homelessness crisis”: the illegal encampments and homesteads that plague our community. Spring has now sprung, and the Municipality of Anchorage’s lack of attention to encampments throughout the winter melts clearly into view. The Municipality has generally acquiesced to illegal encampments in our public spaces, despite it being morally wrong for government to fail to shelter people who have no alternative but to sleep in public, criminally wrong for those who have alternatives to occupy public space, and entirely unsafe for campers and the community.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz defines the “elephant” as a homogeneous population of the down and out with behavioral health issues and no alternatives to camping. Encampments are sanctioned through inaction with the justification that there is no place for ‘them’ to go and there is no money to ‘fix’ the problem. The Municipality flinches from systematic eradication of illegal encampments because of the 9th Circuit case Martin v. Boise. But, this case only narrowly holds that homeless involuntary public campers cannot be prosecuted for sleeping in public if there are not indoor shelter alternatives available and provides protections for limited property of campers. It does not protect campers who do have access to temporary shelter but who choose not to use it. Nor does it allow the massive “homesteading” that occurs or prevent the Municipality from enforcing other laws that prohibit the many other public health and safety threats the camps and campers present. The Municipality need not quake in fear of litigation. It must only follow the limited ruling of this case and effectively use resources.

A strategic plan to eliminate illegal camps would do what the Municipality has failed to do for years: identify who the campers are and why they are camping; determine the emergency shelter capacity required for those who really need and will accept it; provide the resources needed to effectively enforce public nuisance laws; move campers to shelter and assure they are connected with help they will need to obtain and keep permanent housing. The Municipality cannot not “fix” all the issues that lead persons to choose illegal camping as a lifestyle, and the Martin case does not require it to do so. It allows the Municipality, with resources from the alcohol tax, to prevent them from illegally occupying our community’s public spaces.

The Mayor prefers to primarily focus on the Housing First model: provision of affordable housing to the homeless coupled with support services. His has been the “if you build it they will come” approach that relies entirely on permanent housing. When all are housed, voila, the problem disappears. Until then, there is nothing that can end the encampments.

The fallacy is that sufficient housing stock and services for all those who need it are unavailable and, even at the most optimistic, will not be available for many years. Meanwhile, campers who wish to line up for Housing First are disabled from enrolling in and navigating the bureaucracy of that system by their location. The access points for the Coordinated Entry System are in and around the shelters, not in wooded camps. Many campers don’t even wish to try due to the logistics. Emergency and transitional shelter that proactively moves homeless people upstream must be a large part of the continuum to address Anchorage’s ‘homelessness crisis.”

The Administration’s dealing with encampments fails campers and the community. Camps are targeted for abatement not based on a strategic plan, but on the loudest citizen complaints. Police and social workers assure there is shelter capacity to accommodate all campers whether they need it or not, notice the camp or zone, hand out business cards and try to motivate campers to move to shelter or seek services. Parks and Recreation staff then abandon their mission to improve and beautify parks to clean up the tons of garbage left behind. Summer of 2019 counted only about 10% of campers ever moving to shelter after their camps were abated regardless of capacity. The rest tended to move a short distance down the trail and set up again, and were not prevented from doing so. This is a costly whack-a-mole strategy that reports outcomes not by camper progress, but by tons of trash collected.

Contrary to the Mayor’s belief, campers consist of multiple demographics. Some are chronically homeless, some situationally. Some have mental disorders, some not. Some are travelers, some entrenched. Some are law-abiding, some engage in thefts from residents and businesses, some in sophisticated bike theft, chops and resale rings. Some commit crimes against each other. Some embrace a novel right to ‘houseless’ status and to homesteading in parks. Many aggressively claim a right to privacy in the domain of their illegal camp and defend them with belligerence and a flourish of weapons. Most are drug- or alcohol-involved.

A strategic plan of compassionate and thorough encampment eradication must be instituted to address Anchorage’s “homelessness crisis.” This starts with the kind of clean, safe and secure shelter that we have seen recently opened at the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas and a plan with outcomes calculated to assure sufficient and secure shelter capacity, park patrol, systematic determination of camper demographics and needs, proper notice, warm transfers of campers to shelter and services, abatement and prevention of re-settlement to protect those campers with no shelter alternative. Such a plan should also assure discomfort for and ultimately prosecution of intractable campers who do have alternatives yet chose to degrade our parks. It is the duty of elected government to assure that both campers and the community receive equal protection of the law.

Alcohol tax funds could do that, along with many other things. The community will hold the Municipality accountable for such a plan, whether or not Proposition 13 passes.

Stephanie Rhoades is a retired District Court judge.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Governor is failing to protect state workers

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 15:49

Gov. Dunleavy speaks on a video press conference, March 23, 2020. (Video screenshot)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has correctly ordered Alaskans to shelter at home, practice physical and social distancing, and telework. These orders protect Alaskans and slow the spread of this lethal disease. At the same time, the governor has ordered state workers to report to work and interact with the public — in violation of his own orders. Gov. Dunleavy says that state workers are permitted to telework, but that is not true. State employees are being denied telework requests without any explanation or rational basis. Some state offices cannot offer the mandated physical distance. Some state employees are still interfacing with the public without personal protective equipment. This is unacceptable.

Other states have decisively acted to protect the state employees in order to the flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Louisiana and Kentucky have closed state offices to the public. Other states have sent nonessential employees home. Those state leaders recognize that social distancing protects everyone.

Union members want to work. They care about this state and the people who need state services. But if the governor is intent on keeping all state offices open — as stated repeatedly to the public and to employees — he must ensure safe working conditions that slow the spread of this disease. My office has received hundreds of emails and phone calls from concerned union members. Department of Motor Vehicles employees interface with the public without any physical distancing or physical barriers. Some do not have the proper protective equipment. Division of Public Assistance employees work in open air pods, less than six feet apart, in offices with more than 10 people. These conditions threaten state workers and the public safety. These conditions allow the virus to spread.

How can the governor protect the public at large when he fails to protect the workers he is forcing to report to work? The conflict between what the governor is ordering Alaskans to do on one hand, and ordering his employees to do on the other, is inexplicable, irrational, and dangerous.

Last week, in Juneau, a union member sadly tested positive for COVID-19. This employee reported to work for several days before learning that he tested positive. Public employees often work in big office buildings, interfacing with hundreds of surfaces in elevators, breaks rooms, bathrooms and stairwells. This employee worked in open cubicles and offices, with more than 50 employees on the same floor, using one primary door for ingress and egress. Employees report bringing makeshift barriers into work in order to increase social distance between desks. Simply put, the state of Alaska is failing its employees and endangering the public by enforcing unsafe working conditions.

Because the governor would not act, we sued the state last week to ask the court to order the state of Alaska to follow its own mandates. A hearing in the case took place on Friday, with all parties appearing via telephone. Why? Because the Alaska Court System has followed the governor’s mandates, preventing any unnecessary interactions between people.

We need leaders who are consistent and resolute in stopping the spread of this disease. Unlike any time in recent history, our lives may depend on it. Gov. Dunleavy is frustrating the safety of state workers and the public at large by forcing his own employees into unsafe working conditions. For these mandates to work, all Alaskans should follow them. For the safety and health of all Alaskans, Gov. Dunleavy’s orders should apply to state workers.

Jake Metcalfe is the Executive Director of ASEA/AFSCME Local 52, as well as Secretary-Treasurer of the Alaska AFL-CIO.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

`A battlefield behind your home’: Deaths mount in New York

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 15:46

A funeral director and a Wycoff Heights Medical Center, employee transport a body, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Mary Altaffer/)

NEW YORK — New York authorities rushed to bring in an army of medical volunteers Wednesday as the statewide death toll from the coronavirus doubled in 72 hours to more than 1,900 and the wail of ambulances in the otherwise eerily quiet streets of the city became the heartbreaking soundtrack of the crisis.

As hot spots flared around the U.S. in places like New Orleans and Southern California, the nation's biggest city was the hardest hit of them all, with bodies loaded onto refrigerated morgue trucks by gurney and forklift outside overwhelmed hospitals, in full view of passing motorists.

”It’s like a battlefield behind your home," said 33-year-old Emma Sorza, who could hear the sirens from severely swamped Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

And the worst is yet to come.

“How does it end? And people want answers," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "I want answers. The answer is nobody knows for sure.”

President Donald Trump acknowledged that the federal stockpile is nearly depleted of personal protective equipment used by doctors and nurses.

“Difficult days are ahead for our nation," Trump said. “We're going to have a couple of weeks, starting pretty much now, but especially a few days from now that are going to be horrific.”

Scientists offered more evidence Wednesday that the coronavirus is spread by seemingly healthy people who show no clear symptoms, leading the U.S. government to issue new guidance warning that anyone exposed to the disease can be considered a carrier.

Stocks tumbled on Wall Street and markets around the world, with 100,000 to 240,000 deaths projected in the U.S. before the crisis is over. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 970 points, or over 4%.

A new report Wednesday from the United Nations said the global economy could shrink by almost 1% this year instead of growing at a projected 2.5%.

Under growing pressure, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis belatedly joined his counterparts in more than 30 states in issuing a statewide stay-home order, taking action after conferring with fellow Republican Trump. The governors of Pennsylvania and Nevada, both Democrats, and Mississippi's GOP governor took similar steps.

Trump said his administration has agreed to ship out 1,000 ventilators — breathing machines that are vital for treating people with severe cases of COVID-19. He said that the U.S. government has a stockpile of nearly 10,000 but has kept close hold on them so they can be deployed quickly to states that need them.

Meanwhile, European nations facing extraordinary demand for intensive-care beds are putting up makeshift hospitals, unsure whether they will find enough healthy medical staff to run them. London is days away from unveiling a 4,000-bed temporary hospital built in a huge convention center.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, medical equipment is labelled and prepared for use at the ExCel centre which is being made into a temporary hospital, in London. The new hospital - the NHS Nightingale, will comprise two wards, each of 2,000 people, to help tackle coronavirus. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP) (Stefan Rousseau/)
Ffirefighters wearing protective suits wait outside a nursing home before disinfecting it in efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, March 30, 2020. Governments in Europe's hardest-hit countries have yet to systematically test the residents of nursing homes or those who receive in-home care. In Spain, Italy and France, which together account for a third of the world's confirmed coronavirus cases, no one knows for sure how many people have become sick and died of coronavirus, especially among the elderly. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana) (Felipe Dana/)
Thai Buddhist monks wear face shields to protect themselves from new coronavirus as they walk to collect alms from devotees in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit) (Sakchai Lalit/)

In a remarkable turnabout, rich economies where virus cases have exploded are welcoming help from less wealthy ones. Russia sent medical equipment and masks to the United States. Cuba supplied doctors to France. Turkey dispatched protective gear and disinfectant to Italy and Spain.

Worldwide, more than 900,000 people have been infected and over 45,000 have died, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, though the real figures are believed to be much higher because of testing shortages, differences in counting the dead and large numbers of mild cases that have gone unreported.

The U.S. recorded about 210,000 infections and about 4,600 deaths, with New York City accounting for about 1 out of 4 dead.

More than 80,000 people have volunteered as medical reinforcements in New York, including recent retirees, health care professionals taking a break from their regular jobs and people between gigs.

Few have made it into the field yet, as authorities vet and figure out how to use them, but hospitals are expected to begin bringing them in later this week.

Those who have hit the ground already, many brought in by staffing agencies, found a hospital system being driven to the breaking point.

“It’s hard when you lose patients. It’s hard when you have to tell the family members: ‘I’m sorry, but we did everything that we could,’” said nurse Katherine Ramos, of Cape Coral, Florida, who has been working at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "It’s even harder when we really don’t have the time to mourn, the time to talk about this.”

To ease the crushing caseload, the city's paramedics have been told they shouldn’t take fatal heart attack victims to hospitals to have them pronounced dead. Patients have been transferred to the Albany area. A Navy hospital ship has docked in New York, the mammoth Javits Convention Center has been turned into a hospital, and the tennis center that hosts the U.S. Open is being converted to one, too.

With New York on near-lockdown, the normally bustling streets in the city of 8.6 million are empty, and sirens are no longer easily ignored as just urban background noise.

“After 9/11, I remember we actually wanted to hear the sound of ambulances on our quiet streets because that meant there were survivors, but we didn't hear those sounds, and it was heartbreaking. Today, I hear an ambulance on my strangely quiet street and my heart breaks, too,” said 61-year-old Meg Gifford, a former Wall Streeter who lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Cuomo moved to close the city's playgrounds because of too much crowding, but people can still use wide-open green spaces as long as they stay 6 feet apart. Police went around in patrol cars, blaring warnings to obey the rules.

Nearly 6,200 New York City police officers, or one-sixth of the department, were out sick Wednesday, including about 4,800 who reported flu-like systems, though it was not clear how many had the virus.

Cuomo said projections suggest the crisis in New York will peak at the end of April, with a high death rate continuing through July.

“Let's cooperate to address that in New York because it's going to be in your town tomorrow," he warned. "If we learn how to do it right here — or learn how to do it the best we can, because there is no right, it's only the best we can — then we can work cooperatively all across this country.”

Elsewhere around the country, the number of dead in Louisiana was put at more than 270. In Southern California, officials reported that at least 51 residents and six staff members at a nursing home east of Los Angeles have been infected and two have died.

Sugin Quang donates at a blood drive hosted by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to help meet the urgent demand for donations amid the coronavirus outbreak across the United States in Yorba Linda, Calif., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) (Chris Carlson/)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in front of Hard Rock Stadium, Monday, March 30, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/)

Florida's DeSantis was locked in a standoff over whether two cruise ships with sick and dead passengers may dock in his state. More than 300 U.S. citizens were on board. Two deaths were blamed on the virus, and nine people tested positive, Holland America cruise line said.

Even as the virus appears to have slowed its growth in overwhelmed Italy and in China, where it first emerged, hospitals on the Continent are buckling under the load.

"It feels like we are in a Third World country. We don't have enough masks, enough protective equipment, and by the end of the week we might be in need of more medication too,” said Paris emergency worker Christophe Prudhomme.

Spain reported a record 864 deaths in one day, for a total of more than 9,000, while France registered an unprecedented 509 and more than 4,000 in all. In Italy, with over 13,000 dead, the most of any country, morgues overflowed with bodies, caskets piled up in churches and doctors were forced to decide which desperately ill patients would get breathing machines.

England's Wimbledon tennis tournament was canceled for the first time since World War II.

India’s highest court ordered news media and social media sites to carry the government’s “official version” of developments, echoing actions taken in other countries to curb independent reporting.

The strain facing some of the world’s best health care systems has been aggravated by hospital budget cuts over the past decade in Italy, Spain, France and Britain. They have called in medical students, retired doctors and even laid-off flight attendants with first aid training.

The staffing shortage has been worsened by the high numbers of infected personnel. In Italy alone, nearly 10,000 medical workers have contracted the virus and more than 60 doctors have died.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.


Charlton reported from Paris. Sherman reported from Washington. Associated Press writers around the world contributed, including Joseph Wilson in Barcelona; Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Karen Matthews in New York; and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand.

Third resident tests positive for COVID-19 at Fairbanks care facility

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 15:28

Both residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Denali Center in Fairbanks. Photographed Tuesday. (Photo by Eric Engman) (Eric Engman/)

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A third person living at the Denali Center in Fairbanks has tested positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus, hospital officials said Wednesday.

The woman over the age of 90 is doing “very well,” said Liz Woodyard, administrator for the Denali Center.

Two other residents who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 are also doing well, Woodyard said.

“One was on the medical floor and she’s improved so much that she was transferred back to Denali Center,” Woodyard said during a video call with reporters on Wednesday.

Last week, the facility began testing all staff and residents after both a resident and staff member tested positive for COVID-19. A total of five Denali Center employees have tested positive for the disease and some staff results had not yet come back on Wednesday afternoon.

All of the test results for residents at the center have come back, Woodyard said. The 90-bed Denali Center is operated by Foundation Health Partners — which also runs Fairbanks Memorial Hospital — and has 73 residents ranging in age from 20 to 99, as well as 130 staff members.

Officials had opted to test everyone at the facility out of an “abundance of caution,” including those who were asymptomatic, according to Dr. Angelique Ramirez, quality medical director of Foundation Health Partners. The decision was based on new medical literature and “the recognition that a long-term care facility represents an extremely high-risk facility,” Ramirez said.

In terms of testing anyone again, Ramirez said Foundation Health Partners officials would be meeting with the state to determine the best way forward.

Anchorage man who resold face masks online at inflated prices now faces steep fines

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 15:03

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An Anchorage man bought thousands of face masks and resold them at “outrageous, unconscionable and unfair prices” online, the Alaska Department of Law said Wednesday.

Juan Lyle Aune, 47, visited Anchorage stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s and Spenard Builders Supply in February and purchased mass quantities of N95 respirators, prosecutors said in a complaint filed in Anchorage Superior Court on Wednesday. He generally purchased the masks in a 20-pack for about $17-$23 per box, prosecutors said.

One day in late February, Aune asked to purchase all of the respirators in stock at Lowe’s — buying 293 boxes of 20 masks — and told an employee that he was “flipping” them and making about $50 in profit per box, according to the complaint.

Aune would sell the masks for up to $90 per pack on Amazon and eBay under the seller name “Spazzylabs.” The masks retailed for $16 on the site in previous months.

According to the charge, Aune’s stockpiling and reselling of the masks “during a time of increased necessity and demand for such respirators offends public policy, violates fundamental concepts of fairness and is unethical, immoral and unscrupulous.”

The Complaint that I directed the Dept. of Law to file today under the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices Act against Juan Lyle Aune for price gauging in the sale of N95 Respirators through his company name Spazzylabs.

— Kevin G. Clarkson (@AGKevinClarkson) April 1, 2020

Aune’s actions contributed to a local shortage of respirators, which harmed local businesses and consumers, according to prosecutors. Hospitals and first-responders in Anchorage have asked the public to contribute masks or other personal protective equipment in recent weeks to account for a shortage of supplies. Others in the community have taken to sewing masks.

Aune is the first person to be prosecuted for price gouging supplies during the pandemic, a spokeswoman for the Department of Law said.

Aune was cited for violating the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. The violation could result in a fine between $1,000 and $25,000 for each sale and each post or advertisement “in pursuit of an unfair sale.” The Department of Law also asked the court to order Aune to return any money or property obtained “through the unlawful acts and practices alleged in this complaint.”

Oldest coronavirus survivor? Oregon veteran lives to celebrate 104th birthday

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:57

An Oregon veteran who turns 104 today could be one of the oldest people in the world to survive the new coronavirus.

William Lapschies, among the first Oregonians known to have the disease, has been declared free of the virus, said daughter Carolee Brown.

"He is fully recovered. He is very perky,” Brown said. “And he is very excited.”

Oldest coronavirus survivor? Oregon veteran lives to celebrate 104th birthday

— The Oregonian (@Oregonian) April 1, 2020

Not only is Lapschies thriving, he’s celebrating Wednesday with Brown and other immediate family members. They planned to gather outside his window at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home in Lebanon with balloons and a double-layered cake.

"Because he loves chocolate,” Brown said.

The gathering may not rival Lapschies’ 100th birthday party that drew 250 people, but this one is every bit as special and all the sweeter for her father’s good health.

There was a moment when it wasn’t clear if the Salem-born World War II veteran would make it through the infection.

A few days after his March 10 diagnosis, a doctor at the nursing home, where Lapschies has lived for eight months, called Brown to say her father wasn’t doing well.

Lapschies’s temperature had spiked and his breathing was labored. The doctor and Brown talked about end-of-life decisions.

First thing the next morning, Brown drove the 28 miles from Lyons to Lebanon with her husband, daughter and son-in-law.

As she’s been doing twice a week since Lapschies got sick, Brown said she walked up to her father’s first-floor window. She expected to see him lying in bed. Instead, he was sitting in a wheelchair with his back toward her.

She banged on the window three or four times. Lapschies, who has hearing loss, turned around, then used his feet to scoot to the window.

Brown called his cellphone and a caregiver wearing a blue protective gown, mask, face shield and gloves switched on the speakerphone so Lapschies could hear.

"We were, like, ‘Oh, wow,’ ” said Brown, 77. "He just seemed like he was doing a whole lot better.”

And, she said, he’s been getting better ever since.

Amid the torrent of harsh headlines that come with every new day in the age of coronavirus, Lapschies’ recovery offers a glimmer of hope.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is particularly dangerous for elderly people and for people with underlying medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Two of 15 residents at the veterans home who tested positive have died, as have dozens of people associated with an assisted living community near Seattle. Nearly 30 senior care homes in Oregon have reported at least one coronavirus case.

Somehow, Lapschies kicked the disease. While U.S. studies show that up to about 27% of people over 85 with the coronavirus don’t make it, news reports from around the globe point to a handful of hardy survivors like Lapschies.

A 95-year-old Yamhill County man, also a veteran, has survived. A 101-year-old man in Spain has survived, as have two 103-year-old women, one from China and one from Iran.

Brown attributes her father’s survival to his outlook on life: “He has such an upbeat attitude. He’s never down.”

A used car salesman by trade, Lapschies loves company. His isolation during the outbreak is about the biggest hardship in the three weeks since the complex went on lockdown.

Lapschies used to walk the halls and chat with people, Brown said, and now isn’t allowed to leave his room. Family members used to visit him regularly but now can meet him only at his window. They used to take him out on short trips, Brown said — one of the more recent ones was breakfast at the local Shari’s — and now they can’t.

But they hope to again at some point.

Lapschies lived through another pandemic — he was born at Salem Hospital in 1916 and was 2 when influenza infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.

He grew up in Salem, married Alamadean “Deanie” Buetell in 1939 and was drafted into the Army in 1943, leaving behind Brown, who was born that same year, and an older daughter, Billie Jean, who was 2. He was stationed on a small island in the Aleutian Islands, where Brown said he helped dispatch trucks and heavy machinery.

After the war, he moved to Keizer with his family and settled down selling used cars at a place called Orville’s Car Lot.

Lapschies is the kind of dad who bought Brown a little brown horse for $60 when she was an obsessed 10-year-old and set her on her lifelong love of horses. He bought her a rundown 1939 Mercury coupe when she was 16.

The two “worked and worked on that thing” until it was drivable, Brown said, and she kept the car through high school.

The entire family’s love of the outdoors, Brown said, traces back to Lapschies, who took his two daughters and wife camping — often with a slew of neighborhood kids tagging along — at a time when spending a few days in the woods wasn’t yet all the rage. She remembers the Army-issue tents they slept in and the smelly Army sleeping bags.

Brown and her family are Lapschies main support system now. Deanie Lapschies died in 2001 from ovarian cancer and Billie Jean also died of ovarian cancer in 1998.

Brown is looking forward to the day when she can finally get into the veterans home to see him without glass between them.

The first thing she’ll do is give him a big hug, she said. Next order of business: giving him a haircut.

“His hair is getting pretty long,” she said, laughing.

The family kept the list of those attending Wednesday’s party small so everyone could easily stay at least 6 feet away from each other.

But, Brown said, her father’s 105th birthday party will be different.

“We’re really going to have a big one,” she said.

Judge says Alaska government can keep workers in offices during coronavirus pandemic

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:53

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An Alaska Superior Court judge sided with the state Tuesday, ruling Gov. Mike Dunleavy has the authority to keep state workers on the job during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Alaska State Employees Association sued the state on March 24, asking for a temporary restraining order to allow a number of state workers to work from home.

The complaint states that those who can’t work from home should be provided personal protective equipment and have their workplace modified so employees can be socially distant from other employees and the public. Since the virus spread to Alaska, state workers have complained publicly and privately that they are being put at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

[Union sues state, saying it has failed to protect workers from coronavirus]

Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews denied the temporary restraining order.

“ASEA’s argument fundamentally fails to address the impact of the governor’s disaster declaration,” Matthews said in his ruling. "In times of declared disaster, including a public health emergency, the governor ‘is responsible for meeting the dangers presented by disaster to the state and its people.’ In responding to a disaster, the governor has broad power to issue orders, and regulations necessary (to) address the disaster.”

“Judge Matthews recognized that government power regarding how to address the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to maintain essential state services, is entrusted to the Governor and not the judiciary,” Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said in a written statement. "The State of Alaska is doing all it can to ensure the safety of our valued state employees.”

The union, representing about 7,900 members, claimed Dunleavy was forcing state employees to work while asking other Alaskans stay home due to the dangers of the virus. It claimed the state failed to enact its own safety policies when it comes to its own employees, denying telework requests from nonessential state workers without explanation.

The union pointed to Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who ordered many municipal employees to work from home on March 19.

[After ‘hunker down’ order in Anchorage, state employees are told to work]

While the temporary restraining order was denied, the lawsuit remains open. A status conference is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

In a statement Tuesday, the union’s executive director, Jake Metcalfe, said the union will review the order before deciding how to proceed.

“Our goal in this case is and continues to be the protection of the health and safety of all Alaskans," Metcalfe said. "The Court today did not say that state employees are safe. It said that the Governor has the discretion under this emergency declaration to determine who is essential and who is not – and for some reason this Governor seems to want to make sure everyone is working despite the risk of violating serious safety measures and mandates that are in place for the rest of the state.”

[Coronavirus disruptions spread in Alaska, but state government offices remain open]

Clarkson and Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka argue the state instituting necessary safety measures while ensuring critical functions of the state remain operational.

“The state provides many essential services and it is not responsible for the state to completely close down all of its offices and allow everyone to go on administrative leave,” they said in a written statement.

Jobless claims in Alaska surge even higher, far exceeding numbers seen during Great Recession

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:41

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The number of Alaskans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed in the first reporting period that includes the widespread business closures ordered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Initial jobless claims hit 13,774 for the week ending March 21.

That’s up from 7,847 a week earlier, already an unprecedented level, said Lennon Weller, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“It’s pretty remarkable," Weller said. “This is something we’ve never seen.”

Weeks with highest claims and by week since March 30, 2019 (Kevin Powell/)

State and municipal leaders began ordering widespread shutdowns of businesses on March 16, though the economy had previously started to struggle as people began staying home and canceled summer travel plans.

Before the economic fallout hit Alaska, initial weekly claims had hovered around 1,000 for months, as the Alaska economy slipped out of recession.

[Sweeping law promises Alaskans coronavirus economic relief and earmarks money to fight pandemic]

The state’s unemployment insurance program is taking an “unprecedented” number of calls, said Tamika Ledbetter, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Every available staff member is taking calls in a system that can handle 250 calls at a time, she said.

She encouraged people to apply online if possible.

[Federal coronavirus rescue bill contains more than $1 billion for Alaska]

[A guide to surviving financially as the bills come due]

“What I would encourage you to do, if you want to speak to a live person, that’s going to be a little difficult,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “But if you call our main number, we are taking those names and we are actually calling you back. We prefer online, but if you need to call, that’s OK.”

To try to stave off a national depression, Congress recently passed a $2 trillion rescue bill as U.S. jobless claims shot to record levels. The law, along with state efforts, has expanded benefits sharply to help people forced out of work.

The numbers reported for the last two weeks far exceed the previous record high for the number of initial jobless claims in Alaska, seen during the Great Recession at 4,901 claims in January 2010.

The newest high is about 2.8 times higher.

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To better understand the present, they walk through Alaska’s past

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:23

“Truthful, undeniable and powerful.”

“Very eye-opening.”

“Incredibly powerful and healing.”

“I felt like everyone I knew needed to go through it.”

Those are just a few of the responses from Alaskans who have experienced the Alaska Blanket Exercise, an interactive learning tool launched last year to help the public understand Alaska Native history.

Alaska Blanket Exercise participants walk through a guided program, living out the true stories of Alaska Native people as their lands and culture are colonized, first by Europeans and then by Americans. It’s a way for Alaskans to learn about the traumas that Alaska Native people have experienced and how those historical traumas continue to have an impact today on a variety of factors affecting the lives of Alaska Native people, such as physical and mental health.

“The (Alaska) Blanket Exercise helps people to really understand where our parents are coming from, where our grandparents are coming from, and what happened to our people in history,” said Liz Sunnyboy, an Elder and Tribal healer who helps facilitate the exercise. “It helps people to start talking and not be ashamed of what happened to them, but to use that to be the strength for other people.”

Walking through history

“The (Alaska) Blanket Exercise is an experience in which everyone sits in a circle around blankets that are laid across the floor,” said program manager Jackie Engebretson. “Those blankets represent the state of Alaska, pre-colonization.”

Over the course of the exercise, the blanket landscape changes and participants walk through different experiences based on what really happened to Alaska Native people after the arrival of European and American colonists.

Presented by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the program is adapted from the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, which was developed in Canada as part of the country’s First Nations reconciliation effort. After a group of ANTHC staff and Elders participated in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise to learn about new ways to approach the topics of historical and intergenerational trauma, the Elders in the group advocated for bringing the Blanket Exercise to Alaska to help teach younger generations about their ancestors’ experiences. Teisha Simmons was hired to adapt the Canadian script with the stories of Alaska Native people.

Initially, Simmons thought her task would be fairly straightforward. But she found herself overwhelmed by the number of difficult personal stories she read and heard.

“It ended up being probably the most emotional journey I’ve ever gone through at work,” Simmons said. “By the end of it, I really needed a lot of self-care.”

From devastating epidemics to internment during World War II to abuse at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, the history of Alaska Native people in post-colonial Alaska is filled with events that leave unseen scars.

“Historical and intergenerational trauma has a lasting impact on communities,” Engebretson said.

Research has identified trauma as a risk factor for lifelong health issues, disease, substance abuse and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“It (also) affects relationships -- romantic relationships, familial relationships -- so it’s history and it’s now,” Engebretson said. “I think that’s something else that the (Alaska) Blanket Exercise goes into: This isn’t something that happened a long time ago. It’s something happening now.”

For example, BIA boarding schools are now closed, but their impact lives on, not only through boarding school survivors but through their descendants.

“They were taken away from everything they knew -- taken away from their families, taken away from their culture -- and dropped into an entirely new environment where there were just countless abuses against them,” Engebretson said. “You carry that with you, and you carry it with you in your relationships that you have with people.”

Many boarding school survivors, who had been beaten and punished for speaking their languages and observing their cultural traditions, didn’t pass down those languages and traditions to their children. Taken from their parents, they had also lost their caring adult role models.

“When they became adults, many were not able to fulfill a healthy parenting role because of the trauma and because they didn’t have that model of parenting,” Engebretson said. “That gets passed on through generations.”

Sunnyboy said the Alaska Blanket Exercise -- and the conversations, understanding and healing it facilitates -- can be an important step in reviving cultural practices that were suppressed for many years.

“Those are the things that kept families together, kept communities together,” she said. “Traditional values help you to be a real person and allow you to help others to be real people.”

‘Now I understand’

Organizers purposefully don’t share many details about the exercise, which must be led by a trained facilitator and is governed by guidelines intended to make it a safe experience for participants.

“You can’t alter anything with the script,” Simmons said. “You have to have at least 16 people. You have to have an Elder there. You have to have cultural items.”

Most importantly, participation has to be elective.

“People are allowed to choose not to participate,” Simmons said. “We want it to be a place of safety and healing, not retraumatizing. People need to be allowed to say ‘I’m not ready for this.’”

Facilitators also have to be trained in debriefing and prepared to direct participants to any follow-up services they may request. The exercise is followed by a talking circle, and the reflections that have been shared in those circles illuminate the impact on participants. At one recent event, a number of white participants shared afterward that it helped them better understand their Alaska Native partners, according to Sunnyboy.

“That was so great to hear, because a lot of the times the women are intimidated because they’ve got a non-Native partner,” Sunnyboy said. “To hear those men in the circle say ‘Now I understand where my wife is coming from, and I honor her for that, for the stories she tries to tell but maybe I turned her off because I didn’t have any understanding of what happened to her family or her community.’ That exercise brought home things -- that they need to be sensitive to their partners.”

Sunnyboy said she remembers another young man who, after his Alaska Blanket Exercise experience, tried several times to ask his father about an epidemic in his village. Each time, his father replied, “We don’t talk about that.” But the son kept asking.

“The third time, the young man went back to the father and he said, ‘Do you remember the great death that happened in our area?’ and finally the father just broke down,” Sunnyboy said.

The father told his son that he and one other man had been the only survivors. Together, they had buried everyone else in their village. It was a memory he had kept silent for decades until his son finally convinced him it was all right to share.

“That was the first time that Elder man was given permission to talk about what happened in his area,” Sunnyboy said.

An in-demand experience

ANTHC offers a free, public Alaska Blanket Exercise once a month on the Alaska Native Health Campus. There are also frequent classes in Fairbanks and Wasilla, and more than 60 facilitators statewide. There’s another facilitator course coming up this spring, and soon there will be an Alaska Blanket Exercise facilitator in every Alaska regional hub community.

Organizers had initially hoped they would attract 200 participants in the first year. Just over six months into the project, more than 600 Alaskans have participated in the Alaska Blanket Exercise, and Simmons and Engebretson receive messages weekly -- if not daily -- from individuals and groups who have heard about it through word of mouth.

“I think it’s so well received because it teaches about these difficult subjects, that can be difficult to talk about, in a very respectful way that recognizes what Alaska Native people have experienced and how we see those experiences reflected today,” Simmons said.

Learning your history can be liberating, Simmons said. She grew up thinking Alaska Native people were just prone to substance abuse and self-harm, wondering if she might die an alcohol-related death simply because she is Alaska Native. Then she read Harold Napoleon’s book “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being,” which explores the effects of historical trauma.

“It awakened this sense in me of ‘I get to choose what happens now, and I get to choose if I get to heal and not cope in unhealthy ways,’” Simmons said. “That was a huge turning point for me as an Alaska Native person.”

The Alaska Blanket Exercise is valuable for Alaska Native and non-Native people alike, she added, with a focus not on blame but on healing and moving forward.

“The exercise really meets people where they’re at,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of historical trauma, if you have zero awareness of Alaska Native history, or you’ve got a Ph.D. in it. It doesn’t matter if you’re non-Native and you’re working with Alaska Native people and you’ve worked with them for 20 years. It doesn’t matter if you’re Alaska Native. Everybody takes what they need from it with where they’re at. Everybody leaves with a new understanding.”

The popularity of the Alaska Blanket Exercise is a sign, the organizers said, that the state is ready to have difficult conversations about the past in order to prepare for a brighter future.

“That kind of thing, bringing it home and having our people to talk about it -- like my aaka says, that’s the first step in recovery,” Sunnyboy said, using the Yup’ik and Inupiaq word for grandmother. “We’re hearing each other and talking to each other, and we’re not keeping secrets anymore.”

Learn more about the Alaska Blanket Exercise.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.

Letter: Screen at airports

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 11:57

Fever screening is being widely and effectively used in Asia to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The hubby and I returned from a trip to Mexico last Wednesday and were shocked to find that mandatory fever screening was not being used to sequester sick travelers. We went through Mexican immigration, the Oaxaca airport, U.S. customs at Houston, the Houston airport, Denver airport and the Anchorage airport. We were not subjected to a single mandatory fever screening.

Many of the confirmed cases in Alaska were related to travel Outside. If this is the case, then it seems prudent to implement this safe, cost-effective measure immediately at both the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports and our border with Canada. Mandatory fever screening is already happening at the hospitals and major medical clinics in Anchorage. Why not the airports and border crossings?

— Maureen Pintner


Have something on your mind? Send to 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.

In an Alaska town where almost everyone lives under the same roof, the pandemic threat feels different

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 11:42

The 14-story Begich Towers in Whittier is dwarfed by surrounding mountains on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

In the past, before the coronavirus, the conversation in an active Facebook group for residents of Whittier was dominated by the chitchat of small town Alaska life: Reports of bears eating out of the trash bin, offers of free used treadmills for giveaway, a recitation of the nightly dinner special at the Anchor Inn.

Since mid-March, the posts, and the focus of the community, have turned almost exclusively to the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic on this tiny, singular tiny hamlet at the edge of Prince William Sound.

Whittier is like nowhere else in Alaska. About 80 percent of the roughly 280 year-round residents live in a single building, the Begich Towers, a 14-story high rise that sits opposite a reindeer pen. Virtually everyone else in town lives in a second, smaller condo building called Whittier Manor. There are no single family homes and no neighborhoods in Whittier, a railroad and shipping hub that also serves as a jumping-off point for Prince William Sound.

Jerry Pese walks with Louie in Whittier on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Everyone lives together, in Manhattan-style density and proximity. Except instead of a big city, Whittier is hemmed in by the wilderness in every direction.

The only way in or out of town is through the 2.5 mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, blasted through a mountain and operated by the Department of Transportation. Once you’re on the Portage side of the tunnel, Anchorage and its 300,000 inhabitants are only an hour of road away.

A vehicle enters the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel at Bear Valley en route to Whittier on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

It is this combination of isolation, density and access that makes the coronavirus feel like a very different kind of menace to the residents of Whittier, said city manager Jim Hunt.

“We’re at the end of the tunnel, backed up to the water,” he said. “There’s a real sense of vulnerability.”

The Washington Post even used Whittier as a model for a recent simulation of “the spread of a fake disease through a population.”

In recent days and weeks, the city has started warning people on the Bear Valley side of the tunnel that visitors other than residents, their caregivers and employees of essential businesses are not allowed into town.

Begich Towers has closed itself to visitors and on Tuesday adopted new restrictions, including allowing only one family at a time inside the elevators or laundry room. A faction of residents want to see the tunnel closed down.

The 14-story Begich Towers in Whittier on a sunny Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

And while there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Whittier, everyone is thinking the same thing: How do you keep the virus away when just about the whole town lives in a single building? What will happen if -- or when -- the pandemic makes its way here?

“My most pressing question is: Are we doing enough?” said Peter Denmark, a Whittier resident who owns a kayaking business and has questioned city preparation for the virus. “We’re still clean, by all accounts. But I think everybody knows that’s a false sense of security.”

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Tunnel concerns

People in Whittier say they are abiding by state lockdown mandates as best they can, with most people staying in their condominiums except for brief forays outside for walks or groceries. People aren’t gathering in condos for dinner parties, or hanging around the bar at the Anchor Inn — open now only for takeout.

But they are concerned about the possibility of recreation-seeking visitors entering the town in large numbers, especially as Whittier — notorious for dismal weather — sees a string of sunny spring days.

“I think it’s really worrisome to our residents that there’s this mandate there should be no travel between communities,” said Annie Reeves, the assistant city manager. “But then there’s this opportunity to go out and recreate — so people are coming into our community, to enjoy the sunshine and whatnot. I don’t know if people are necessarily following the mandates.”

A pickup truck exits the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel in Whittier on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Last weekend, about 300 people came to Whittier through the tunnel, said mayor Dave Dickason, who lives in the Begich Towers. That includes returning residents. At the Bear Valley side of the tunnel, a flyer now explicitly tells visitors to stay away from town unless they live there, are a caregiver or work for an essential business.

“There’s the undertone of the unknown when people come through the tunnel, and fear for what kind of threat it might pose,” said Hunt, the city manager.

A lot of Whittier’s residents live there because of the natural isolation, said Dickason. More than a few remember the era before the tunnel opened to vehicle traffic in 2000 when it was even more onerous to get in and out of the community.

“They definitely like solitude,” he said. “So when something like this happens, boy, they really long for those old days when there was no access, or easy access.”

“I want them to shut the tunnel down,” said Karen Cole, a housekeeper at the Anchor Inn, the only combination hotel-restaurant that operates all winter, mostly housing people who come to Whittier for state DOT or other work hitches. “But it is state-ran. So they really can’t.”

Whittier Mayor Dave Dickason on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

About 30 percent of Alaska’s freight enters the state through Whittier and the tunnel, according to Dickason.

“We move a tremendous amount of freight in here,” Dickason said. “It would be devastating, if they were to close it down.”

“I think that’s a big driver of the community’s concern: We can’t stop people from coming into our city,” Reeves said.

Tower concerns

Then there’s the simmering worry inside the high-rise where most Whittier residents live. Begich Towers has passed new rules restricting visitors, elevator use and other measures aimed at keeping common spaces as untouched as possible.

“There’s the fear that if it gets into one of the buildings it’s going to spread quickly,” said Todd Perez, the owner of the Inn at Whittier and a few other seasonal businesses in town.

There have been discussions about where to quarantine people outside of Begich Towers if the need should arise. Two ideas floated: The empty cruise ship terminal and the Inn at Whittier hotel.

Reeves, the assistant city manager, says she’s proud of community efforts to keep residents safe during the pandemic.

“It’s really rather remarkable for being such a tiny town, that we can pull together so quickly. Always with that vision of ‘how do we keep our tiny town safe?’” she said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. And I don’t want to experience it again.”

In the city of Whittier on Monday, March 30, 2020, a sign posted on the door states, "Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Anchor Inn Store will be limiting five (5) customers per visit including the cashier for State mandated social distancing precautions." (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

That’s not to mention the existential question mark hanging over every Alaska community that relies on tourism: What will summer look like? While cruise ships come to Whittier, most never make the community a “port of call,” meaning visitors typically get on transportation and quickly leave town.

But the broader tourism industry looks certain to take a hit, said Denmark, the kayaking business owner. Mid-April is usually the time when Whittier shifts from winter quietude to full-bore prep for summer tourism.

His business has already seen a wave of cancellations from Southern youth groups that make up a big share of his business.

“I can only speak for myself but I’m screwed," he said.

A sign states that the Whittier harbormaster office is "closed a precaution due to COVID-19 virus" on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Meanwhile a local fish processor, Whittier Seafoods, is trying to hire workers. In open letters, some in the community have raised questions about how the workers will be screened, quarantined and housed as the pandemic continues -- questions being asked in fish processing communities all over Alaska.

“Whittier Seafood is an integral part of the community and we gotta find a way,” Denmark said.

“Brighten up my day!!!”

With all the uncertainty, people in Whittier say they are savoring the simple joys of living in their unique town, like blue sky days and the return of the kittiwakes.

On the What’s What in Whittier forum, one resident pleaded from a break from the pandemic hang-wringing.

“Too much ugly stuff being posted everywhere. Post a pic you have of PWS or Whittier….Brighten up my day!!!” he implored.

Almost 100 people responded. They shared photographs of halibut, full moons rising over snowy mountains and a few shots of people from before social distancing, crowded close together and smiling.

A sea otter swims in the Whittier Harbor on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Letter: Give us our PFDs

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 11:40

This would be an excellent time for the state government to give Alaskans the Permanent Fund dividend revenue that it has commandeered from us over the past several years. It would stimulate the economy at a time when the economic outlook is as bleak as its been in modern history. And it would give much-needed financial help to citizens who are stepping up and doing the right thing by isolating themselves to protect their neighbors and families but are facing financial disaster in order to do so.

Now is a good time to remember that the Permanent Fund was established by constitutional amendment with a vote of the people in order to protect in perpetuity a part of the oil revenue from being spent by state government. Even members of the government knew the state could not be trusted with all of the wealth from Alaska’s resources.

The Legislature may have the legal right to take this money from the people — they write the laws — but they are wrong to do so. If protecting the PFD were put to a vote of the people, it would pass overwhelmingly. Give us back our PFD. And never touch it again without a vote of the people.

— Allen Janz


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Alaska couples among passengers stranded on cruise ships being denied permission to dock

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 11:40

Chuck and Janice Black of Anchorage are quarantined to their rooms on the Holland America Rotterdam cruise ship as COVID-19 concerns spread. The couple was transferred off the beleaguered Zaandam on Sunday.

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What started out as a relaxing cruise vacation for two Alaska couples has turned into a nightmare as passengers fall ill and some have died while COVID-19 spreads.

The U.S. Coast Guard announced Sunday that ships must remain sequestered offshore indefinitely and crews should prepare to treat sick passengers on board.

Chuck and Janice Black of Anchorage have been quarantined in a small room for more than a week, first onboard the Holland America Zaandam. Four Zaandam passengers have died and nine people have tested positive for COVID-19. Two of the deaths were confirmed to be caused by the virus.

The Blacks feel fine and were among nearly 1,400 asymptomatic passengers transferred Sunday to a sister ship, the Rotterdam. There are more than 300 Americans aboard the two ships.

Their new room has a balcony, so they can open the door to get fresh air. There’s Wi-Fi, a TV with about six channels, numerous movies and spotty cellphone service.

“We’re self-quarantined. We don’t have a lot of space to move around,” Chuck Black said over the phone Tuesday. “You know, it’s OK. We’re staying away from anybody else. So anybody that might be sick is you know, we’re not socializing at all.”

The couple flew to Buenos Aires and boarded the ship on March 7. At that point, COVID-19 was spreading only near Seattle and Black said he never imagined it would take off the way it did.

The Zaandam cruise ship in Panama City, seen from Isla de Taboga, Panama, Friday, March 27, 2020, amid the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco) (Arnulfo Franco/)

The first week of the cruise was normal -- the couple hopped off the ship at several ports, including the Falkland Islands, where they saw penguins.

But then, Black said, things went bad. Port after port closed, leaving the ship stranded.

Black said it turned into a “mystery cruise,” because it became unclear where or when they would find the next open port.

“We all felt comfortable because there was nobody sick,” he said. “And then on the 22nd is when the captain said that there were several people that had flulike symptoms and they weren’t sure what it was.”

Several days later, they learned that four people had died.

The cruise ship passed through the Panama Canal on Monday, and passengers have been waiting to find out if they will be allowed to disembark at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they were originally expected to dock April 7.

Florida’s governor has so far refused permission, saying that local hospitals are already at capacity with no way to care for the more than 190 passengers still on the Zaandam who say they are sick.

A Marine Safety Information Bulletin released Sunday by the U.S. Coast Guard called for cruise ships to remain offshore.

President Trump addressed the cruise crisis during his White House briefing Tuesday.

“They’re dying on the ship,” he said. “I’m going to do what’s right. Not only for us, but for humanity.”

Black said they’re doing fine but they’re ready to begin to quarantine on land. Their son, Charles Black of Arizona, has been asking lawmakers for help.

“It’s a humanitarian problem now,” Charles Black said. “This isn’t about who got on a cruise or who didn’t; this is about getting people home.”

Susie and Dave Schaefer are a Wasilla couple quarantined in their cabin aboard the Coral Princess cruise ship. The couple's planned 32-day trip began March 5 in Chile. They hope to get home through Florida, where the ship is scheduled to arrive this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Susie Schaefer)

Another ship, the Coral Princess, is also headed toward Florida with an Alaska couple aboard. Dave and Susie Schaefer are quarantined in their rooms and hoping to get home to Wasilla.

But first, the Coral Princess has to get to Florida -- and then passengers have to be able to disembark and get a flight out.

Their 32-day cruise started March 5 in Chile, Susie Schaefer said by phone Tuesday. Everything was fine onboard for weeks.

Everyone was interviewed and tested before they started the trip. On what turned out to be their last shore excursion in mid-March, the couple also saw penguins in the Falkland Islands.

Then various ports refused to let the ship dock. About half the passengers -- many from South America -- got off in Buenos Aires, where people wearing hazmat suits and carrying weapons patrolled the dock, Schaefer said. The captain hoped to let off everyone else in Rio de Janeiro, but pulled anchor and steamed away after a pilot boat failed to arrive and communications faltered.

The Coral Princess cruise ship was docked in Skagway on August 23, 2015. (Anne Raup / ADN) (Anne Raup / ADN archive 2015/)

Until a few days ago, she said, everyone aboard was doing fine and life was normal: buffet meals, big shows, games.

Then Tuesday, the captain announced over the intercom the medical unit was seeing a surge in people with respiratory or flulike symptoms. He closed buffets and shipboard activities.

A few hours later, another announcement: Yet more cases were surfacing. Passengers were ordered to quarantine in their rooms.

By Tuesday evening, Schaefer said, they were waiting on room-service dinner and looking at Barbados from their balcony.

They’re hoping to get to Port Everglades in Florida on Saturday.

“But we don’t know what’s waiting for us there. We’re very much aware of the two Holland America ships,” she said. “It’s the uncertainty that’s so hard, it really is. Just not knowing.”

Protective gear in national stockpile is nearly depleted, officials say

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 10:54

A New York City medical worker wears personal protective equipment outside a COVID-19 testing site at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (John Minchillo/)

The government’s emergency stockpile of respirator masks, gloves and other medical supplies is running low and is nearly exhausted due to the coronavirus outbreak, leaving the Trump administration and the states to compete for personal protective equipment in a freewheeling global marketplace rife with profiteering and price-gouging, according to Homeland Security officials involved in the frantic acquisition effort.

As coronavirus hotspots flare from coast-to-coast, the demand for safety equipment - also known as PPE - is both immediate and widespread, with health officials, hospital executives and governors saying their shortages are critical and that health care workers are putting their lives at risk while trying to help the surging number of patients.

Two DHS officials said that the stores kept in the Department of Health and Human Service's Strategic National Stockpile are nearly gone, despite assurances from the White House that there is availability.

"The stockpile was designed to respond to handful of cities. It was never built or designed to fight a 50-state pandemic," said a DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the stockpile. "This is not only a U.S. government problem. The supply chain for PPE worldwide has broken down, and there is a lot of price gouging happening."

President Donald Trump said during Tuesday's White House briefing that the administration has nearly 10,000 ventilators on reserve and that authorities are ready to deploy the lifesaving equipment rapidly to coronavirus hotspots in coming weeks. He also said that large amounts of PPE were being shipped directly from manufacturers to hospitals. But the DHS officials said the stockpile has not been able to handle the load.

Hospitals and states face a real risk of running out of supplies, one of the officials said. "If you can't protect the people taking care of us, it gets ugly."

Several reports in recent days have documented a Wild-West-style online marketplace for bulk medical supplies dominated by intermediaries and hoarders who are selling N95 respirator masks and other gear at huge markups. Forbes reported that U.S. vendors have sold 280 million masks - mostly into the export market - and that U.S. states and local governments were outbid in the frenzy.

There are few signs the Trump administration is making efforts to stop the export shipments or seize the supplies for use in U.S. hospitals, despite statements from Attorney General William Barr last week that U.S. wholesalers hoarding masks and other supplies would get "a knock on your door."

Governors have been pleading with federal authorities to ship more equipment and protective gear. Distribution of the supplies has happened unevenly, with some states saying they've received a fraction of the supplies they desperately need and some cities having received no assistance from their state governments.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government had anticipated the Strategic National Stockpile would be exhausted, and the administration is moving swiftly to procure and distribute medical supplies.

"FEMA planning assumptions for COVID-19 pandemic response acknowledged that the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) alone could not fulfill all requirements at the State and tribal level," Janet Montesi, a FEMA spokesperson, said in a statement. "The federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus."

The government has more than $16 billion available to make the acquisitions, she said.

"We remain committed to helping ensure key medical supplies expeditiously arrive at the front lines for our health care workers," Montesi said.

According to the White House, FEMA had shipped or delivered 11.6 million N95 respirator masks, 26 million surgical masks, 5.2 million face shields, 4.3 million surgical gowns, 22 million gloves, and 8,100 ventilators as of March 28.

A stockpile of 1.5 million expired N95 masks that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has in storage will be distributed to the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP said in a statement. The CDC has issued guidelines for the safe use of masks with expiration dates that have passed, potentially leaving their elastic bands too loose to form a proper face seal.

U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., said this week she and other lawmakers were told some of the expired CBP masks would be given to hospitals.

"Officials confirmed that the masks would indeed go to health care workers and be prioritized by highest need such as NY and NJ. I will follow up to make sure this happens!" the lawmaker tweeted Sunday.

A CBP official on Wednesday confirmed to The Washington Post that the masks would go to ICE agents and TSA officers instead, not to FEMA staff or medical personnel.

The government has long viewed the national stockpile supples as a holdover during an emergency so the government could buy time for manufacturers to boost output and for new supply chains to solidify, according to a senior administration official. Having the medical supplies sitting in a warehouse doesn't serve any purpose, the official said, even though the administration has been holding back thousands of ventilators.

Asked about concerns that the government will not be able to keep pace with the demand for PPE supplies, the official said the government has planes coming in from Asia every day for the next few weeks ferrying new materials, noting that a planeload with 80 tons of PPE arrived from China on Sunday.