AN INTERVIEW WITH GOV. MIKE DUNLEAVY
When Gov. Mike Dunleavy got the call from Commissioner Adam Crum that the State Department wanted Alaska’s help with 150 or more Americans from Wuhan, China, who were being airlifted out of China, Dunleavy was rightfully skeptical.
He had already been punked by Ukranian pranksters in October, who called him — and spoke to him by phone — while they were posing as the Russian ambassador and his translator. It was a bit out of the ordinary to get such a call from the State Department, and Dunleavy was thinking about the recent prank
“Are you sure about this?” he asked his commissioner of Health and Social Services. Crum was certain: Alaska was being asked to be the first state to be ready for COVID-19.
They got the State Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink on the phone and began confirming that hospitals in Wuhan were already being overwhelmed with patients and that this was an epidemic that was spinning out of control.
Within a couple of days the plan was in place to bring the jet full of possibly infected Americans into the North Terminal at the Ted Stevens International Airport, and what now seem like thin protocols began to be established. That was the last week of January, and Alaska passed its first big test with the COVID-19 coronavirus. The plane had landed, people were checked over as best as the technology and medical understanding allowed, and it was sent on its way to California, for quarantine of all the passengers and crew.
After that, the Dunleavy Administration never took its foot off the gas, as it war-gamed out what would happen with COVID-19 when it hit Alaska. Models were all over the map, and contradictory information was trafficked by government officials around the world.
Looking back, Dunleavy said, “Major PhD theses will be written about this crisis. Books will be written about it.”
But in January through March, the State of Alaska was flying blind, just as every other nation and sub-governmental unit has done since the outbreak. No one knew exactly what they were dealing with. Leaders from presidents to hospital CEOs and school principals have had to “build the plane as they flew it” to prepare for what was to come.
“Nobody wanted to take them,” Dunleavy remembered, of the plane of people from Wuhan. “People were saying things on Facebook like, ‘let the jet run out of fuel over the Pacific.’ These are Americans they were talking about. There was a lot of fear. It was unreal.”
“My first thought was ‘rural Alaska,'” Dunleavy said, as he and his leadership team began to study what was coming.
Dunleavy had spent many years as a teacher in the Bush. He remembered talking to his mother-in-law, an Alaska Native, and asking her how her own father died. As she sat on the floor sewing, she described how her father died in bed next to Rose Dunleavy’s grandmother. Both had contracted the Spanish flu of 1918. He didn’t make it, while she survived.
So many others in rural Alaska were hit hard by that pandemic.
“I said to my team, ‘We’ve got to protect rural Alaska,'” Dunleavy said. He was well aware that tuberculosis and hepatitis are already big health concerns in the villages, but those are known diseases, with known treatments.
“Look what’s happening to the Navajo nation now,” Dunleavy said. “They have the highest percentage of COVID cases, surpassing New York City.”
The Navajo Nation, population 173,667, spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and has over 4,000 cases of COVID-19.
“I was just thinking that during the Spanish flu, Alaska was hit harder than any other place on the planet. The primary purpose of government is public safety, so I called Jay Butler at the CDC and asked him if this was real. Jay said, ‘yes,’ and the modeling coming out at the time, in late January, initially said we in Alaska would have 1/2 million infected, 100,000 hospitalized and that 20,000 could die.”
“We were getting reports out of Italy that the health care system there was collapsing, so we started looking at our own capacity, and how to build that up.”
The first thing was to get more personal protective equipment, or PPE, for medical professionals and others on the front lines of the infection. There was simply not enough masks, gowns and gloves in Alaska — not nearly enough. And Dunleavy got the sense that in the national panic, Alaska’s needs would be forgotten.
Then he remembered his hunting friend John Sturgeon. Sturgeon had asked Dunleavy to volunteer on a wounded veterans hunt on Afognak Island in the fall, and Dunleavy remembered a conversation the two had, where Sturgeon shared that he had a good friend who is a Chinese national.
“The light went on,” Dunleavy said. He started working the problem. This wasn’t going to be easy, since China, too, needed PPE. And China is both a friend and foe to America. There were geopolitics at work.
Dunleavy picked up the phone and called Sturgeon. Soon, they had the Chinese Consulate on the phone from San Francisco, and a few weeks later, a chartered FedEx MD-80 jet from China arrived in Anchorage with $3 million worth of personal protective gear. It included 160,000 face shields, 1.2 million pairs of nitrile gloves, 31,000 protective Tyvek jumpsuits, 100,000 disposable gowns, 20,000 shoe and head covers, and more.
Meanwhile, Alaskan doctors and individuals were donating their PPE. Fish and Game found swabs and test kits in one of their lab. And Dunleavy asked Palmer-based Triverus — a company that manufactures deck cleaning equipment for aircraft carriers — to start making swabs for tests.
By that point, the Seattle health care system was beginning to buckle, as it had in Wuhan, and then in Italy. Dunleavy knew that it was just a matter of time before the virus would get ahead of the fragile health care infrastructure in the state, and that the commercial fishing season would bring an influx of people from out of state to communities ill-equipped to handle an outbreak.
But because of a longstanding relationship with Franklin Graham, rural Alaska had a secret weapon. Dunleavy called Graham and a Samaritan’s Purse jet headed for Anchorage, loaded with test equipment, PPE, and medical supplies expressly for rural Alaska.
Read Part II: