By JIM WOJCIEHOWSKI
I doubt any of us expected to be thrown into a line from the Grateful Dead, but here we are two year later: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
And so it began
I first heard the word “Covid” while on a trip to the Galapagos Islands in February, 2020. One week later, after a friend, my wife and I made it back to Ecuador, all flights to and from those islands were canceled. We felt like we were surfing just ahead of a 100-foot wave of uncertainty.
Upon arrival in Miami the beginning of a Covid-driven change was apparent. In the first class lounge, 50 percent of those present wore masks. The majority of mask wearers were from Europe and Asia.
We left Alaska in September, 2019 for a road trip through Canada to the Lower 48, with plans to return to Alaska in April 2020. On March 7, 2020 we flew unmasked to Seattle and reunited with our truck camper on Whidbey Island.
On March 13, 2020 President Trump announced a Covid National Emergency. On March 16, the nation began the 15 days to slow the spread experiment. During that time Whidbey Island looked like a scene from the Walking Dead, minus the zombies. No one dared hike in the parks and traffic was all but non-existent on the roads. It was eerie.
I turned my attention to concerns of our ability to drive back to Alaska in April. Canada had closed its borders to all but essential travel and initially Alaskans returning home were not considered essential.
I called the offices of the late Don Young, and Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski. One hour later I received a return call from Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office. Rachel listened to my concerns and said that honestly, with everything else going on, no one had thought about Alaskans driving home. Four hours later I received another call from Rachel reporting that Sen. Sullivan contacted Secretary of State Pompeo before he had a scheduled meeting with his counterpart in Canada. My concerns were conveyed and Alaskans returning home by road were now considered essential travel.
Three days later I received a return call from someone in Rep. Don Young’s office and I told her the problem had been handled. Ten days later, after we were already back in Alaska, a person from Sen. Murkowski’s office called and told me nothing could be done and we should fly home — a recommendation that suggested sitting on an airplane might be safer than isolating in our self contained truck camper while driving.
I realized at that point many more poor decisions were likely to be forced on us.
Looking back, the original vector that got me involved was a mask.
I’ve never been directly involved with politics beyond researching candidates and their platforms. Until the recent mayoral campaign, I never contributed to or volunteered for a campaign, whether local or national, in my life. But I have always voted.
After unelected acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson was appointed by the Assembly she changed the mask mandate. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz had an exemption for mask use during exercise. AQD removed it that exemption.
Having retired from medicine, I knew extreme cardiovascular exercise while masked could be harmful. I naively thought since neither the unelected acting mayor nor any Assembly members had a license to practice medicine they simply didn’t realize this fact. On Nov. 8, 2020, I sent my first email to Austin Quinn-Davidson and later forwarded the same email to the Assembly. I shared peer-reviewed medical journal articles showing the danger of mask use during exercise.
I thought I might get a thank you and a change to the mandate. Instead I got some puzzling responses. I made it clear in that email I was not anti-mask and at the time wore masks in the big box stores as required. I just wasn’t willing to risk my well being by exercising with a mask on.
“I recognize that you aren’t in the column of people supporting masks. But having the source material is better than not,” said Assemblyman Chris Constant. To this day, that response makes zero sense.
“Thanks you very much for sharing your email to the mayor. You provide a very valuable insight to the challenges of wearing a mask while exercising. I understand your frustration and I hope we can find the right balance between safety and practicality,” said Assembly Chairwoman Suzanne LaFrance.
“Good call! You won’t get an argument from me as I’ve tried to fight these mandates from day one!” said Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy.
I received a call from Assemblywoman Jamie Allard, who thanked me for the information and supporting my position.
The AQD Mayor’s Office sent a boilerplate response saying my message would be forwarded to the “covid team.”
I received no other responses, including from my own District 5 assembly people, Forrest Dunbar and Pete Petersen.
I started to attend Assembly meetings including showing up over an hour beforehand and waiting outside the Loussac in the winter cold in order to assure my ability to address the Assembly during public comment.
I started to closely monitor the State Covid Dashboard for case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. I realized the number of deaths per 100,000 was much lower in the Mat-Su, which had no mandates, than in the Municipality with draconian business killing lockdowns and mandates. I pointed out during one of my three-minute testimonies and also by email that at the time the Mat-Su had 27 deaths per 100,000 while the muni had 41 per 100,000. I questioned the advice being given the Assembly and mayor by Janet Johnston, PhD mathematician and epidemiologist.
One response to that email surprised me.
“There are lots of dashboards one can use, I am thankful for the sacrifices and hard work that has resulted in a dramatic reduction in COVID cases since the mandates were enacted last fall. It worked, but we can’t become complacent. The mask ordinance is intended to be temporary. I hope with the vaccinations and continued adherence to safety protocols that we will be able to return to normal before too long,” said Assembly Chairwoman LaFrance.
That response is dated Jan. 23, 2021 — over a year ago. It doesn’t look like the “adherence to safety protocols” returned us “to normal before too long.”
Was she implying the State Covid Dashboard had inaccurate information? Not likely. Probably she didn’t want to face the fact the restrictive mandates were not achieving the goal when compared to the Mat-Su.
I later got a surprise email from Assemblyman John Weddleton. He has continued to respond to many of my emails and I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, although we have to agree to disagree at times. He sent me a link to a three-page writeup by Janet Johnston, PhD, outlining why another community 44 miles away linked to the municipality by the road system could not be used as a control study comparison of a community with mandates and one without.
Ironically, in a later presentation at an assembly meeting, Dr. Johnston touted the benefits of mask usage referencing a study from Bangladesh. That study compared Covid spread in neighboring villages. So essentially she believed a study that compared differing communities but wrote that it was improper to compare the Mat-Su to Anchorage.
At later meetings I pointed out that I felt the Covid relief funds were poorly spent by the Assembly. When assembly members talked of hospital staffing shortages, I pointed out the Covid money they squandered on things like trail projects and hotel purchases could have supplied all the traveling nurses needed to fill the staffing gaps.
I began pointing out both in person and via email the unintended consequences resulting from their mandates. A very memorable Assembly meeting included cardboard tombstones, each representing a business directly killed by those mandates.
A compelling testimony was given by Mr. Perez, the owner of the recently closed restaurant Table Six. When everyone was talking of business closures he put a verbal face to the problem by reading the names of the 58 employees of Table Six that no longer had work.
The Assembly’s solution was to enact another rule limiting signs in the Assembly to 8 1/2 x 11. No more tombstones. An incredibly tone-deaf move.
Meanwhile, thanks to the reaction to Covid forced on us by the Assembly and past mayors, the suicide ideation rate, opioid overdoses, domestic violence, homeless population, and child abuse rates all increased. Our children were removed from school and upon return forced to wear masks regardless of the fact they had little to fear from a case of Covid. There are plenty of studies showing the delay in social development in children secondary to that forced mask usage.
Vaccinations and labels
Admittedly, I’ve been a pain in the butt for most of this Assembly and former unelected acting mayor. As a result I’ve been labeled “anti-vax” and a “Covid denier.” This is ironic considering, as pointed out in a previous Must Read Alaska article, I’m vaccinated and volunteered at a Municipal vaccination site. I’ve shared far more scientific data with this Assembly than I’ve ever received replies.
Apparently I caused a bit of a stir with the “Silent Nine” article by asking two simple vaccine mandate questions of the Assembly members and mayor. Since that time, Weddleton has answered the two questions when asked by one of his District 6 constituents why he wouldn’t answer.
He responded by saying he had answered my questions yet I can not find that email response and I keep them all. I asked him to produce the original so I could do a mia culpa on Must Read Alaska as a correction to the article. I’ve not received a copy of that original response yet. For the record here are Weddleton’s present answers.
1) Do you support mandatory Covid vaccination to maintain employment, enter businesses, receive healthcare, or fly (vaccine passports)?
No. I’m vaccinated and glad I am. It’s a benefit to me but since we know we can still get C-19 and share it with others, I am puzzled what broad societal benefit is gained by requiring others to vaccinate.
2) Do you support mandatory Covid vaccination for school children to attend classes?
No. But I let the elected School Board make decisions for the ASD.
To date, Mayor Dave Bronson, Assembly members Allard, Kennedy and now Weddleton have answered. Crickets from the others.
I recommend you think about this long and hard when filling in the little ovals on your ballots. If you want a more responsive assembly perhaps the incumbents need to go.
I, being a District 5 constituent, will be voting Stephanie Taylor.
Jim Wojciehowski is a retired physician assistant who has attended numerous Anchorage Assembly meetings and has testified about the Covid policies of the former mayors and Anchorage Assembly.