Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Omicron and Alaska's testing blind spot
The latest case counts aren't great, and they're even more questionable when you consider that testing is about a third of what it was during the delta wave.
Good evening, Alaska!
In this edition: The omicron surge hits, revealing the fragility and inadequacy of the state’s testing. Anchorage might get to vote on Eagle Exit… in an advisory manner. The redistricting trial gets a new date and legislators are set to get a new salary.
Something fun: Pat Race takes a shot at redesigning Juneau’s flag.
Omicron and the blind spot
According to the state’s latest release of covid-19 data, the state reported a 262% increase in cases with 3,689 new cases reported from a period running from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2 as the highly contagious omicron variant makes its presence felt in Alaska. Hospitalizations and, importantly, ventilator capacity haven’t seen a corresponding jump, which seems to comport with the reports of it not being nearly as severe as the previous strains (so it’s not all bad news). The positivity rate—the rate at which tests are coming back positive—hit its highest of the entire pandemic with 12.8%.
One of the most important trends that stands out to me in the latest wave of cases is that testing is down to just a fraction of where it was during the height of the delta-driven surge. The busiest day I could find from the delta surge reported more than 15,300 tests while the highest day in the last week was just north of 5,500… and that was before the last weekend’s wild weather hit. When it comes to a positivity rate, experts have warned that anything above 5% indicates a need for more testing.
Instead, this week kicked off with people heading to social media in search of an operating testing site, complaining about the stark lack of notification that testing throughout the city would be interrupted. It was felt particularly strongly in Anchorage, where far-right, covid-skeptic Mayor Dave Bronson has shut down all city-backed testing in favor of a hands-off approach that invited private testing operator Capstone Clinic to step in. Being based out in Mat-Su with half of the employees living in the Mat-Su, its general manager told the Anchorage Daily News that several testing sites were either understaffed resulting in long testing lines or unstaffed altogether as weather made travel treacherous.
For the next week or two, folks are being told to expect an one- to two-hour wait.
The Bronson administration was largely mum on the situation, only in the afternoon issuing a series of tweets that directed people to getting at-home tests (but didn’t say where they could get the free tests from the municipality) and “please check with them” when it comes to other testing sites.
For a mayor who’s loved to apply flying metaphors to the pandemic—explaining that no one flies the test planes in defense of his decision not to take the vaccine (which he later went onto suggest is a bioweapon)— Bronson has the city effectively flying blind here. We’re approaching inclement weather conditions with, at best, a third of the instrument readings we would normally be flying by.
Is that really what a seasoned pilot would be recommending?
All of this comes in a shifting focus in how the state reports numbers—late last year, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the state was no longer interested in “documenting this pandemic”—that has seen the reported case counts go from daily, to three times a week to, now, once a week. While that move isn’t entirely out of line with most national experts urging us to put more focus on hospitalization numbers than raw case counts, it’s hard to overlook what’s going on with testing.
Widespread testing—whether it’s the drive-up tests or the at-home tests—are a critical tool that individuals can use to protect themselves and their circles. Public health officials are advising that people consider getting tested before and after travel as well as attending big gatherings. That was a relatively realistic request when drive-up testing was widely available or when at-home tests could be easily picked up at Walgreens, but the lines are getting longer with the dwindling number of drive-up sites and at-home tests are becoming increasingly hard to come by.
We, too, are flying blind.
Eagle Exit vote, maybe
As if Anchorage’s political landscape wasn’t already spicy, Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant announced what will likely be a particularly spicy proposal on Monday: To put the long-talked-about breakup between Anchorage and Eagle River (and Chugiak) on the ballot. It’s only a non-binding advisory vote but it would not only serve as our first good public vote gauging the interest in the Eagle Exit movement.
“I don’t take a position on whether the idea is good or not. It’s a question that has hounded much of the process,” Constant said in a series of tweets announcing and discussing the proposal. “For the record I’m not pro- or anti- on this question.”
The proposal puts the deeply conservative Bronson administration and their allies in an interesting spot because Eagle River is a bastion of conservative voters who played a crucial role in his election but have also chafed at the increasingly progressive city core and have supported the breakup. Both Eagle River assemblymembers told the Anchorage Daily News that while they’re interested in the idea, they don’t appreciate that Constant brought it forward, and it seems Assemblymember Cyrstal Kennedy is considering putting forward her own proposal.
Just what would and wouldn’t be included in the split is a big point of contention.
Constant’s proposal only identifies splitting off Chugiak and Eagle River off from the city. Backers of the plan have pushed for a more expansive carveout from the municipality, which would include JBER as well as the Tikahtnu Commons shopping center (despite it being a 15-minute drive from what’s typically considered to be Eagle River). The inclusion of the two areas would help the hypothetical Eagle River government bolster its revenue, which is a big deal given a 2007 study’s conclusion that an Eagle River government would need to significantly increase its tax revenues if it planned to maintain the same level of services. Any such carveouts would effectively take away from the Anchorage’s revenue.
Does it matter? Does any advisory vote really matter?
Redistricting trial moves
In the latest pre-trial order, the lawsuit challenging the work of the Alaska Redistricting Board has been bumped by a week. It’ll now start on Feb. 21 instead of Feb. 18, which is a relief for political reporters everywhere given that Feb. 18 is also the start of session, the day that oral arguments over Ballot Measure 2’s legality will be heard by the Alaska Supreme Court and, now, the day that the State Officers Compensation Commission will consider reworking legislator compensation.
The State Officers Compensation Commission met today to continue consideration of a plan that would overhaul how legislators are compensated. KTUU’s Sean Maguire already has a good recap of the hearing here, but the gist is that the commission is advancing a plan that would increase base legislator pay while cutting back significantly on per diem payments.
It’d raise legislator pay from $50,400 to $64,000 per year with a cap of $100 on daily per diem payments, down from $295 per day. The shift on per diem will hopefully put an end to the eye-popping payments that averaged $35,000 per legislator per year in recent years. There was discussion on putting a total annual cap on legislator per diem, which had been discussed at the commission’s last meeting, but it was ultimately nixed.
The changes would be set to kick in once legislators from the 2022 elections are seated, but the board is reportedly investigating whether it can be implemented sooner.