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State encourages vaccinated Alaskans in places with high rates of COVID-19 transmission to mask up — again

Thu, 2021-07-29 19:43

Face masks rest on a table at the Anchorage School District Education Center on Sept. 26, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

State public health officials are encouraging even fully vaccinated Alaskans to wear masks in parts of the state with high COVID-19 rates, including Anchorage.

But they also said their guidance is simply a recommendation.

“We want Alaskans to be safe,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, in an interview this week. “Alaskans should consider masking if they are in indoor spaces with other people where vaccination status is unknown, and there is higher transmission in that region.”

Anchorage officials on Thursday made it clear the state’s largest city did not intend to issue any new directives related to the updated guidance, including a mask mandate.

The state’s latest guidance on masks is in line with the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that vaccinated people mask up in indoor public spaces in communities where “substantial or high” coronavirus transmission exists.

The CDC’s new guidance was motivated by concerns over the highly contagious delta variant that’s driving a national surge in COVID-19 cases and a rise in hospitalizations. CDC officials cited new research showing both vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with the COVID-19 delta variant may be similarly contagious.

The CDC’s changing mask recommendations are coming under public criticism around the country as people express frustration over the “whiplash” effect of confusing messaging. The agency in May said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most settings.

Still the state health department is urging Alaskans who live in communities with high case rates to consider wearing masks again.

[‘The war has changed’: Internal CDC document urges new messaging, warns delta infections likely more severe]

“Adding additional levels of protection such as masking can help benefit you as well as others, so that’s why we are asking those in the indoor space to consider masking as well,” Zink said.

State health officials say they are consulting with local and tribal governments as case counts rise.

Zink said she had begun wearing a mask again in public, even though she’s fully vaccinated.

“I am masking up again indoors, just because of the data that we’re seeing,” Zink said. “And I don’t want to be making personal decisions that I’m not sharing publicly. If I have access to data that’s making me choose a different behavior I want Alaskans to have the same access to that information.”

At a question-and-answer session with news media on Thursday, Anchorage’s new mayor, Dave Bronson, made it clear his administration did not intend to issue any new directives about masks. Bronson’s criticism of Anchorage’s previous COVID-19 public health restrictions was a focus of his recent campaign for office.

“I’m not here to compel people to wear masks or get vaccinated,” Bronson said.

“If you’re unsure and you just want to wear masks, wear masks, no one’s going to stop you from wearing a mask,” added Dr. Michael Savitt, the city’s newly appointed chief medical officer.

Savitt did emphasize the importance of people getting vaccinated, calling it “the most important tool we have right now.”

[Rep. Don Young urges Alaskans to get the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘They’ll help us fight this virus and get done with it’]

In Juneau, where case rates also have shot up, officials are taking a different approach. Juneau announced Thursday that a mask mandate would be reintroduced in the city beginning Friday midday.

The CDC has a map that Americans can use to check whether they live in a county with substantial or high transmission. As of Thursday, that map showed both Anchorage and Juneau at the highest transmission level.

While that map works well to assess transmission in more densely populated communities, Alaskans in smaller communities should look at their local coronavirus dashboards to determine whether they are in a area with high transmission, Zink told reporters Thursday.

“Oftentimes, communities have the best local data on how many cases are in their region,” Zink said.

Alaska’s health department initially issued a broad statement about masking that was later modified.

The recommendation came Wednesday in a weekly COVID-19 update thousands of Alaskans receive via email. It’s also posted online.

The guidance was one bullet point in a much longer summary: “All regions of Alaska are now at the ‘orange’ or ‘red’ Alert Level. All persons, including fully vaccinated persons, should wear a mask when in indoor public spaces.”

But health officials later said that language was corrected because it didn’t address different vaccination and transmission rates at the village or community level.

[Biden plans to require federal workers to be vaccinated or undergo repeated COVID-19 testing]

The state’s alert map is all orange and red, but the CDC map is “more granular” showing each census area and borough, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said. A number of census areas and boroughs have high vaccination rates and low virus transmission.

“That’s why we decided to modify the language, to make it more clear,” McLaughlin said. “This is not a mandate, not a requirement. It’s just a recommendation.”

The state’s new guidance says that along with regions in orange or red, most communities also meet the “substantial or high” threshold set by CDC: “Alaskans should consider following CDC guidance which encourages mask wearing in indoor public spaces if you live in an area experiencing substantial to high rates of community transmission according to CDC definitions.”

Despite the increased transmissibility of the delta variant, the three vaccines available in Alaska are still considered highly effective at protecting against all strains of the virus. The vast majority of Alaska’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among people who are unvaccinated, state health officials say.

A day after Alaska’s largest earthquake in over half a century, no big wave, minimal damage

Thu, 2021-07-29 18:55

Between 300-400 people used the King Cove school gymnasium as shelter during a tsunami warning late Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Photo courtesy Paul Barker)

A day after the largest earthquake in the United States in over 50 years struck off the coast of Alaska, damage reports were minimal and no big wave was recorded.

The earthquake struck off the coast of the sparsely-populated Alaska Peninsula at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, and seismologists recorded the event at a magnitude of 8.2, which produced about a 7-inch wave Wednesday evening.

At King Cove, in the Aleutians, pantry shelves were left empty after more than a minute of shaking sent loose items to the floor. Shaking was felt throughout the Alaska Peninsula as well as in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula.

As of 12 hours following the M8.2 we've located ~140 aftershocks. The locations and magnitudes are subject to change upon further review, but look to be occurring to the east of 2020 sequence. The map here shows 2020 in gray and the recent aftershocks in red. pic.twitter.com/hQ93k7HVUZ

— Alaska Earthquake Center (@AKearthquake) July 29, 2021

Tsunami warnings were called off under two hours later, after Unalaska to Homer, Kodiak and Seward moved to higher ground.

A spokesman for the state’s emergency management agency said the department hadn’t received any requests for emergency assistance by Thursday afternoon, and had only received reports of minimal damage like buckling or collapse of small sheds or steam baths, said Jeremy Zidek, with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

[Tsunami warning canceled after 8.2 offshore earthquake sent people in many Alaska coastal communities to higher ground]

There may be some damage that is not yet apparent, but no one had reported significant damage by Thursday, he said.

“You could imagine if that earthquake happened in Anchorage or in Los Angeles the damage that would have occurred and the loss of life and injury and property damage and all of that. But so far, so good,” Bryan Fisher, director of the state homeland security division told the Associated Press. He has been with the agency for 26 years, and said this was the largest quake he has experienced.

Given how long the ground shook, up to two minutes in some places, they expected to have broken glasses or plates and items thrown out of pantries and refrigerators.

“But to not have roads collapse, not have a damaging wave from the tsunami that was generated was just incredible,” Fisher said. “It’s really a miracle.”


A line of cars evacuates the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska on July 28, 2021, after a tsunami warning was issued following a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The tsunami warning for much of Alaska's southern coast was canceled when the biggest wave, of just over a half foot, was recorded in Old Harbor. Alaska. (Sarah Knapp/Homer News via AP) (Sarah Knapp/)

In Perryville, population about 100 and about 56 miles from the epicenter, most of the community ended up at the tsunami shelter Wednesday night, said Gerald Kosbruk, council chair for the Native Village of Perryville.

They watched the quake trigger debris-slinging rockslides on nearby islands. Many reported falling down in the shaking before they left home.

“You definitely saw fear and disbelief in their faces,” Kosbruk said Thursday morning, as he and other community members checked for damage.

He hadn’t found much, apart from some porches and small buildings off kilter. Residents were “definitely still cleaning stuff off the floor,” he said. “We’re feeling a lot of aftershocks.”

The shaking felt like being in a boat in choppy weather and lasted for quite a while, said Tina Anderson, Aleutians East Borough clerk in Sand Point. But last year’s earthquake, a magnitude 7.8 roughly 65 miles south of Perryville, felt more like being shaken up in a snow globe, she said.

[Alaska earthquake that prompted tsunami evacuations, but no big wave, may offer clue in scientific debate]

Previous earthquake damage was exaggerated along joints and cracks at the Kodiak Fire Station, but that was about the extent of reported damage in the city according to emergency management officials there.

Why didn’t this one cause waves like 1964?

Wednesday’s earthquake was the nation’s largest in over 50 years, after Alaska’s magnitude 8.7 earthquake at Rat Islands and the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which was a magnitude 9.2 said Stephen Holtkamp, a seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center.

But that doesn’t mean Wednesday night’s earthquake was unexpected, he said. The 7.8 earthquake in July 2020 occurred just west of the 2021 event and probably increased the stress on the fault, which means last summer’s event may have prompted the Wednesday event to happen now rather than in 50 years.

There are multiple reasons why the earthquake Wednesday didn’t produce the same sort of devastating wave that the 1964 earthquake did, Holtkamp said. First off, magnitude increases exponentially, meaning the difference between an 8.2 and a 9.2 is quite vast. Plus, the earthquake was some 20 miles underground, while more damaging earthquakes are closer to the surface and can in turn produce a bigger wave.

Tsunami notifications in Anchorage? Again?

In Anchorage, at least some residents received loud phone alerts announcing tsunami danger nearby. But Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the Tsunami Warning Center based in Palmer, said the state’s most populous city was never under a warning.

Snider said he’d heard of people in Anchorage and the Mat-Su who had gotten the alert that shouldn’t have. But, he said it was too soon to say exactly what went on.

“That was certainly not intended from the Tsunami Warning Center’s warning,” he said.

To notify those in Anchorage that a tsunami was not impending, the city’s office of emergency management posted via their social channels shortly after the alerts went out that there was no cause for concern among people in Anchorage.

The system set up to warn Alaskans of tsunamis on their cell phones is complicated. FIPS codes, which determine what area will be notified of a warning tend to overlap in certain places in Alaska, Zidek, with the state, said. Cell phone coverage can extend to areas that are both in and out of a tsunami warning zone.

“There’s no tsunami danger here in Anchorage,” Zidek said. “The (Cook) Inlet is too shallow. But the cell phone towers that service Anchorage also service areas that do have a tsunami danger.”

Zidek said the state’s policy is to “over-notify people,” ensuring that people in the danger zone are aware of the threat. The state is, however, trying to improve the wireless warning system, Zidek said, though they can’t take the system down completely, which is challenging given the nexus of private industry and government that go into the alert system.

“The system isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better,” he said.

ADN reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.

Biden administration announces it will allow federal eviction moratorium to expire on Saturday

Thu, 2021-07-29 18:01

In this June 9, 2021, photo, people hold a sign during a rally in Boston protesting housing eviction. The Biden administration announced Thursday, July 29 it will allow a nationwide ban on evictions to expire Saturday, arguing that its hands are tied after the Supreme Court signaled it would only be extended until the end of the month. The White House said President Joe Biden would have liked to extend the federal eviction moratorium due to spread of the highly contagious delta variant. Instead, Biden called on "Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay." (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) (Elise Amendola/)

BOSTON — The Biden administration announced Thursday it will allow a nationwide ban on evictions to expire Saturday, arguing that its hands are tied after the Supreme Court signaled the moratorium would only be extended until the end of the month.

The White House said President Joe Biden would have liked to extend the federal eviction moratorium due to spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. Instead, Biden called on “Congress to extend the eviction moratorium to protect such vulnerable renters and their families without delay.”

“Given the recent spread of the delta variant, including among those Americans both most likely to face evictions and lacking vaccinations, President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium to protect renters at this moment of heightened vulnerability,” the White House said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available.”

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, said the two are working on legislation to extend the moratorium. Democrats will try to pass a bill as soon as possible and are urging Republicans not to block it.

In the House, a bill was introduced Thursday to extended the moratorium until the end of the year. But the prospect of a legislative solution remained unclear.

The court mustered a bare 5-4 majority last month, to allow the eviction ban to continue through the end of July. One of those in the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, made clear he would block any additional extensions unless there was “clear and specific congressional authorization.”

By the end of March, 6.4 million American households were behind on their rent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in June this would be the last time the moratorium would be extended when she set the deadline for July 31. It was initially put in place to prevent further spread of COVID-19 by people put out on the streets and into shelters.

Housing advocates and some lawmakers have called for the moratorium to be extended due to the increase in coronavirus cases and the fact so little rental assistance has been distributed.

Congress has allocated nearly $47 billion in assistance that is supposed to go to help tenants pay off months of back rent. But so far, only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion has been distributed through June by states and localities. Some states like New York have distributed almost nothing, while several have only approved a few million dollars.

“The confluence of the surging delta variant with 6.5 million families behind on rent and at risk of eviction when the moratorium expires demands immediate action,” said Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The public health necessity of extended protections for renters is obvious. If federal court cases made a broad extension impossible, the Biden administration should implement all possible alternatives, including a more limited moratorium on federally backed properties.”

Gene Sperling, who is charged with overseeing implementation of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, said it was key that states and local authorities speed up the rental assistance distribution.

“The message is that there are no excuses,” he told The Associated Press.

“States and cities across the country have shown these programs can work, that they can get money out the door effectively and efficiently,” he continued. “The fact that some states and cities are showing they can do this efficiently and effectively makes clear that there is no reason that every state and city shouldn’t be accelerating their funds to landlords and tenants, particularly in light of the end of the CDC eviction moratorium.”

The trouble getting rental assistance to those who need it has prompted the Biden administration to hold several events in the past month aimed at pressuring states and cities to increase their distribution, coax landlords to participate and make it easier for tenants to get money directly.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta also has released an open letter to state courts around the country encouraging them to pursue measures that would keep eviction cases out of the courts. On Wednesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unveiled a tool that allows tenants to find information about rental assistance in their area.

Despite these efforts, some Democratic lawmakers had demanded the administration extend the moratorium.

“This pandemic is not behind us, and our federal housing policies should reflect that stark reality. With the United States facing the most severe eviction crisis in its history, our local and state governments still need more time to distribute critical rental assistance to help keep a roof over the heads of our constituents,” Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Jimmy Gomez of California and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said in a joint statement.

But landlords, who have opposed the moratorium and challenged it repeatedly in court, were against any extension. They have argued the focus should be on speeding up the distribution of rental assistance.

This week, the National Apartment Association and several others this week filed a federal lawsuit asking for $26 billion in damages due to the impact of the moratorium.

“Any extension of the eviction moratorium equates to an unfunded government mandate that forces housing providers to deliver a costly service without compensation and saddles renters with insurmountable debt,” association president and CEO Bob Pinnegar said, adding that the current crisis highlights the need for more affordable housing.

“Our nation faces an alarming housing affordability disaster on the horizon — it’s past time for the government to enact responsible and sustainable solutions that ultimately prioritize making both renters and housing providers whole,” he added.

___

Associated Press Supreme Court reporter Mark Sherman and congressional reporter Kevin Freking contributed from Washington.

Murkowski touts money for Alaska projects in bipartisan infrastructure bill

Thu, 2021-07-29 17:55

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during a markup at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Murkowski is working with a bipartisan group of 10 senators negotiating an infrastructure deal with President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

A trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure proposal in Congress contains large amounts of funding to improve Alaska highways, water and wastewater systems, broadband services and other facilities, Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, R-Alaska, said on Thursday.

Murkowski, part of a 10-member group of Republicans and Democrats who helped fashion the proposal, said it will especially support states like Alaska that have lagged behind in basic facilities.

“We’ve really focused on ensuring that those parts of the country that have been under-resourced, that have a higher need, are receiving a level of funding that is just really quite unprecedented,” she said.

The proposal includes $550 million in new federal investment in infrastructure without raising taxes, as well as streamlined permitting procedures, according to Murkowski’s office.

[Infrastructure deal: Senate suddenly acts to take up bill]

The Senate advanced the measure 67-32 in a procedural vote on Wednesday, with more votes yet to come. However, the legislation is not yet drafted, leading a number of Republicans, including Sen. Dan Sullivan, also R-Alaska, to hold back their support. Sullivan was one of the “no” votes on Wednesday.

He “is still waiting to see full details of the bill,” said Mike Reynard, Sullivan’s communications director.

That language is being completed and made available to all senators quickly, Murkowski said.

The proposal, supported by President Joe Biden, will inject more than $180 million into Alaska for water and wastewater funding, bringing running water to some rural communities and improving service in others, Murkowski said.

It will be part of a “once in a lifetime” effort to improve sanitation services nationally, she said.

[Congress passes bill to fund Capitol security and increase visas for Afghan allies]

“We know we have far too many communities that are still unserved or underserved,” she said.

Murkowski listed other items that she said will benefit Alaska, including:

• $4.3 billion over five years to help build, repair and maintain the state’s highway system, which includes close to 600 miles in poor condition.

• A state-apportioned share of some $30 billion for bridge construction and upgrades, to help address 141 bridges in Alaska classified as structurally deficient.

• Funding to increase electric vehicle use, including funding that could lead to the use of electric or hybrid vessels for the state ferry system.

• A minimum allocation to states of $100 million for broadband deployment, as well as tribal funding for broadband grants.

• Efforts to reduce permitting timelines for some projects, including for development of critical minerals that are largely imported and used in computers and renewable energy.

The measure also includes funding for ports, airports, fire prevention, public-use cabins, cleanup of old federal oil and gas wells like those on the North Slope, and other items that will help Alaska, Murkowski said.

Other specific benefits for Alaska are still being identified, she said.

Murkowski emphasized that the measure deals with physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and wastewater. She distinguished it from what she called the “soft infrastructure” measure that Democrats are pursuing, a separate, $3.5 trillion proposal, which would include spending on family-service programs, climate change and other more progressive priorities.

“This is not going to be a situation where (Democrats) will go back in and add to what has already been agreed to in this hard infrastructure package,” she said. “I can’t predict to you what is going to come in the wholly partisan bill, other than I can predict that it will be a level of spending that I believe will be reckless.”


Infrastructure deal: Senate suddenly acts to take up bill

Thu, 2021-07-29 17:44

The bipartisan group of Senate negotiators speak to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. From left are Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/)

WASHINGTON — The Senate has voted to begin work on a nearly $1 trillion national infrastructure plan, acting with sudden speed after weeks of fits and starts once the White House and a bipartisan group of senators agreed on major provisions of the package that’s key to President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Biden welcomed the accord as one that would show America can “do big things.” It includes the most significant long-term investments in nearly a century, he said, on par with building the transcontinental railroad or the Interstate highway system.

“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function,” Biden said ahead of the vote Wednesday night. “We will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”

After weeks of stop-and-go negotiations, the rare bipartisan showing on a 67-32 vote to start formal Senate consideration showed the high interest among senators in the infrastructure package. But it’s unclear if enough Republicans will eventually join Democrats to support final passage.

Senate rules require 60 votes in the evenly split 50-50 chamber to proceed for consideration and ultimately pass this bill, meaning support from both parties.

The outcome will set the stage for the next debate over Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion spending package, a strictly partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life. Republicans strongly oppose that bill, which would require a simple majority, and may try to stop both.

Lead GOP negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced the bipartisan group’s agreement on the $1 trillion package earlier Wednesday at the Capitol, flanked by four other Republican senators who had been in talks with Democrats and the White House.

After voting, Portman said the outcome showed that bipartisanship in Washington can work and he believed GOP support would only grow. “That’s pretty darn good for a start,” he said.

That group had labored with the White House to salvage the deal, a first part of Biden’s big infrastructure agenda. Swelling to more than 700 pages, the bill includes $550 billion in new spending for public works projects.

In all, 17 Republican senators joined the Democrats in voting to launch the debate, but most remained skeptical. The GOP senators were given a thick binder of briefing materials during a private lunch, but they asked many questions and wanted more details.

According to a 57-page GOP summary obtained by The Associated Press, the five-year spending package would be paid for by tapping $205 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief aid and $53 billion in unemployment insurance aid some states have halted. It also relies on economic growth to bring in $56 billion, and other measures.

Giving Wednesday night’s vote a boost, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell announced late in the day he would vote to proceed, though whether he will support the final bill remains uncertain. The Republican negotiators met with McConnell earlier Wednesday and Portman said the leader “all along has been encouraging our efforts.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a lead Democratic negotiator who talks often with Republicans also spoke with Biden on Wednesday and said the she hoped the results showed “our government can work.”

Democrats, who have slim control of the House and Senate, face a timeline to act on what would be some of the most substantial pieces of legislation in years.

Filling in the details has become a month-long exercise ever since a bipartisan group of senators struck an agreement with Biden in June over the broad framework.

The new spending in the package dropped from about $600 billion to $550 billion, senators said, as money was eliminated for a public-private infrastructure bank and was reduced in other categories, including transit.

The package still includes $110 billion for highways, $65 billion for broadband and $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electric grid, according a White House fact sheet.

Additionally, there’s $25 billion for airports, $55 billion for waterworks and more than $50 billion to bolster infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change. There’s also $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations.

Paying for the package has been a slog throughout the talks after Democrats rejected a plan to bring in funds by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump and Republicans dashed an effort to boost the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.

Along with repurposing the COVID-19 relief and unemployment aid, other revenue would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum, reinstating fees that chemical companies used to pay for cleaning up the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites and drawing $49 billion from reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate, among other sources.

The final deal could run into political trouble if it doesn’t pass muster as fully paid for when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details. But Portman said the package will be “more than paid for.”

House Democrats have their own transportation bill, which includes much more spending to address rail transit, electric vehicles and other strategies to counter climate change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not commit to supporting the package until she sees the details, but said Wednesday she’s “rooting for it.”

Pelosi said, “I very much want it to pass.”

A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC found 8 in 10 Americans favor some increased infrastructure spending.

Senators in the bipartisan group have been huddling privately for months. The group includes 10 core negotiators, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but has swelled at times to 22.

Transit funding has remained a stubborn dispute, as most Republican senators come from rural states where highways dominate and public transit is scarce, while Democrats view transit as a priority for cities and a key to easing congestion and fighting climate change.

Expanding access to broadband. which has become ever more vital for households during the coronavirus pandemic, sparked a new debate. Republicans pushed back against imposing regulations on internet service providers in a program that helps low-income people pay for service.

Meanwhile, Democrats are readying the broader $3.5 trillion package that is being considered under budget rules that allow passage with 51 senators in the split Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie. It would be paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate and the tax rate on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year.

___

Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Josh Boak in Washington and Tali Arbel in New York contributed to this report.

Live killer whale stranded on Southeast Alaska beach swims away with high tide

Thu, 2021-07-29 17:22

A live killer whale is stranded on shore rocks in the vicinity of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. Credit: Captain Chance Strickland and Crew of M/V Steadfast

A live, 20-foot long killer whale stranded on a rocky Southeast Alaska beach refloated back to sea Thursday afternoon, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said.

A vessel on the east side of Prince of Wales Island called in the stuck marine mammal to the U.S. Coast Guard Thursday morning, said Julie Speegle, a NOAA spokeswoman. NOAA authorized the crew to pump seawater on the animal keep it wet and to keep birds away, according to Speegle.

Twitter user Tara Neilson shared a photo of the whale while it was stranded. It appeared to be lodged in seaweed-slicked rocks. At the time, people were pouring buckets of water on it to keep it wet.

By the early afternoon, a NOAA law enforcement officer was on the beach, and the agency was asking people to stay away.

“This animal is in a situation where it is exceedingly stressed,” Speegle said. “The more humans nearby, the more it will be stressed.”

Killer whales, even stranded, can be dangerous, she said.

[A killer whale was headed toward a sea otter in Kachemak Bay. Then the otter hopped on a boat — and stayed there.]

The killer whales seemed to be injured, though it’s not clear how seriously. Speegle said it had been vocalizing, making the haunting clicks and whistles and pulsing calls the animals are known for. More killer whales were reported in the area, offshore.

The tide came in enough to refloat the whale and it swam away around 3 p.m., Speegle said.

“Our officer and troopers report the whale was a bit slow at first, and meandered around a little before swimming away,” she said.

Live strandings are unusual, but they do happen. Two killer whales survived being stranded in Turnagain Arm in the 1990s, according to NOAA.

There’s no evidence the magnitude 8.2 earthquake in the Alaska Peninsula area Wednesday night in any way contributed to the stranding, she said.

Bay Cetology, a group of British Columbia-based marine biologists, identified the stranded whale as “T146D,” a 13-year-old that is part of a transient population of animals last seen off the Haida Gwaii archipelago on July 3.

NOAA said it hadn’t confirmed which pod the whale belongs to or its age.

Judge says Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system is legal

Thu, 2021-07-29 17:02

A sign is tied to a fence outside Anchorage's Central Lutheran Church in the general election on Nov. 3, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system and top-four open primary are legal and may be used in the 2022 statewide general election, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller ruled Thursday.

In his decision, Miller ruled against the Alaskan Independence Party, a Libertarian politician and a Republican attorney who sued to stop the state from implementing Ballot Measure 2, which was approved by Alaska voters last year.

Miller’s decision is expected to be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Under the Ballot Measure 2 system, all candidates for a given office run together in a primary. The four candidates with the most votes in that primary advance to the general election, where voters will be asked to rank the four candidates in order of preference.

This article is developing and will be updated.

‘The war has changed’: Internal CDC document urges new messaging, warns delta infections likely more severe

Thu, 2021-07-29 16:40

A sign requiring face masks is seen at City Creek Center Monday, March 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer/)

WASHINGTON — The delta variant of the coronavirus appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox, according to an internal federal health document that argues officials must “acknowledge the war has changed.”

The document is an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slide presentation, shared within the CDC and obtained by The Washington Post. It captures the struggle of the nation’s top public health agency to persuade the public to embrace vaccination and prevention measures, including mask-wearing, as cases surge across the United States and new research suggests vaccinated people can spread the virus.

The document strikes an urgent note, revealing the agency knows it must revamp its public messaging to emphasize vaccination as the best defense against a variant so contagious that it acts almost like a different novel virus, leaping from target to target more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.

It cites a combination of recently obtained, still-unpublished data from outbreak investigations and outside studies showing that vaccinated individuals infected with delta may be able to transmit the virus as easily as those who are unvaccinated. Vaccinated people infected with delta have measurable viral loads similar to those who are unvaccinated and infected with the variant.

“I finished reading it significantly more concerned than when I began,” Robert Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, wrote in an email.

CDC scientists were so alarmed by the new research that the agency earlier this week significantly changed guidance for vaccinated people even before making new data public.

The data and studies cited in the document played a key role in revamped recommendations that call for everyone — vaccinated or not — to wear masks indoors in public settings in certain circumstances, a federal health official said. That official told The Post that the data will be published in full on Friday. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky privately briefed members of Congress on Thursday, drawing on much of the material in the document.

One of the slides states that there is a higher risk among older age groups for hospitalization and death relative to younger people, regardless of vaccination status. Another estimates that there are 35,000 symptomatic infections per week among 162 million vaccinated Americans.

The document outlines “communication challenges” fueled by cases in vaccinated people, including concerns from local health departments about whether coronavirus vaccines remain effective and a “public convinced vaccines no longer work/booster doses needed.”

The presentation highlights the daunting task the CDC faces. It must continue to emphasize the proven efficacy of the vaccines at preventing severe illness and death while acknowledging milder breakthrough infections may not be so rare after all, and that vaccinated individuals are transmitting the virus. The agency must move the goal posts of success in full public view.

The CDC declined to comment.

“Although it’s rare, we believe that at an individual level, vaccinated people may spread the virus, which is why we updated our recommendation,” according to the federal health official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “Waiting even days to publish the data could result in needless suffering and as public health professionals we cannot accept that.”

The presentation came two days after Walensky announced the reversal in guidance on masking among people who are vaccinated. On May 13, people were told they no longer needed to wear masks indoors or outdoors if they had been vaccinated. The new guidance reflects a strategic retreat in the face of the delta variant. Even people who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors in communities with substantial viral spread or when in the presence of people who are particularly vulnerable to infection and illness, the CDC said.

The document presents new science but also suggests a new strategy is needed on communication, noting that public trust in vaccines may be undermined when people experience or hear about breakthrough cases, especially after public health officials have described them as rare.

Matthew Seeger, a risk communication expert at Wayne State University in Detroit, said a lack of communication about breakthrough infections has proved problematic. Because public health officials had emphasized the great efficacy of the vaccines, the realization that they aren’t perfect may feel like a betrayal.

“We’ve done a great job of telling the public these are miracle vaccines,” Seeger said. “We have probably fallen a little into the trap of over-reassurance, which is one of the challenges of any crisis communication circumstance.”

The CDC’s revised mask guidance stops short of what the internal document calls for. “Given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the Delta variant,” it states.

The document makes clear that vaccination provides substantial protection against the virus. But it also states that the CDC must “improve communications around individual risk among [the] vaccinated” because that risk depends on a host of factors, including age and whether someone has a compromised immune system.

The document includes CDC data from studies showing that the vaccines are not as effective in immunocompromised patients and nursing home residents, raising the possibility that some at-risk individuals will need an additional vaccine dose.

The presentation includes a note that the findings and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the CDC’s official position.

The internal document contains some of the scientific information that influenced the CDC to change its mask guidance. The agency faced criticism from outside experts this week when it changed the mask guidance without releasing the data, a move that violated scientific norms, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“You don’t, when you’re a public health official, want to be saying, ‘Trust us, we know, we can’t tell you how,’ " Jamieson said. “The scientific norm suggests that when you make a statement based on science, you show the science. . . . And the second mistake is they do not appear to be candid about the extent to which breakthroughs are yielding hospitalizations.”

The breakthrough cases are to be expected, the CDC briefing states, and will probably rise as a proportion of all cases because there are so many more people vaccinated now. This echoes data seen from studies in other countries, including highly vaccinated Singapore, where 75% of new infections reportedly involve breakthrough cases.

The CDC document cites public skepticism about vaccines as one of the challenges: “Public convinced vaccines no longer work,” one of the first slides in the presentation states.

Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, said he was struck by data showing that vaccinated people who became infected with delta shed just as much virus as those who were not vaccinated. The slide references an outbreak in Barnstable County, Mass., where vaccinated and unvaccinated people shed nearly identical amounts of virus.

“I think this is very important in changing things,” Orenstein said.

A person working in partnership with the CDC on investigations of the delta variant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said the data came from a July 4 outbreak in Provincetown, Mass. Genetic analysis of the outbreak showed that people who were vaccinated were transmitting the virus to other vaccinated people. The person said the data was “deeply disconcerting” and a “canary in the coal mine” for scientists who had seen the data.

If the war has changed, as the CDC states, so has the calculus of success and failure. The extreme contagiousness of delta makes herd immunity a more challenging target, infectious-disease experts said.

“I think the central issue is that vaccinated people are probably involved to a substantial extent in the transmission of delta,” Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist, wrote in an email after reviewing the CDC slides. “In some sense, vaccination is now about personal protection — protecting oneself against severe disease. Herd immunity is not relevant as we are seeing plenty of evidence of repeat and breakthrough infections.”

The document underscores what scientists and experts have been saying for months: It is time to shift how people think about the pandemic.

Kathleen Neuzil, a vaccine expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said getting more people vaccinated remains the priority, but the public may also have to change its relationship to a virus almost certain to be with humanity for the foreseeable future.

“We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody’s nose,” Neuzil said. “It’s hard to do, but I think we have to become comfortable with coronavirus not going away.”

Our ports need investment now

Thu, 2021-07-29 16:23

The Port of Alaska, photographed on July 19, 2012. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2012) (Loren Holmes/)

Alaska, which receives 90% of its freight through maritime commerce and with more coastline than the entire Lower 48 combined, would stand to benefit from a thoughtfully crafted federal infrastructure package supporting ports and harbors. Alaska is ready to invest in projects which will advance its competitive standing and better serve its interests regionally and internationally.

Serving major Department of Defense installations and more than 80% of the state’s population from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the Port of Alaska (POA) in Anchorage modernization requires excess of $800 million. Alaska is home to 17 of the top 100 US commercial fishing ports, and federal funding would be a boon to municipal small boat harbors, as state funding opportunities are chaotic and have waned significantly due to fiscal constraints.

Tourism is the largest private industry in Southeast Alaska, with the vast majority arriving via cruise ship. The first electrified cruise ship dock in the world was commissioned in 2001 in Juneau, and ports are planning for more dock electrification. Leveraging private and federal funding will enable ports-of-call to update facilities to develop Alaska cruise destinations that are environmentally sustainable and set the bar for other world ports to follow.

American consumers, retailers and farmers nationwide are feeling the impact of a global supply chain under severe strain. Everything from refrigerators to bikes are taking longer to reach our shores from overseas manufacturers, and domestic companies are running short of components and raw materials to keep up with demand. In addition to a global container shortage and the effects of the pandemic, many of today’s delays and shortages are the consequence of decades of underinvestment in maritime infrastructure — playing out in warehouses, storefronts and households in real time.

While the current disruptions will lessen over time, global trade volumes are forecast to increase, leaving U.S. ports in need of significant and sustained investment now to ensure the nation’s freight gateways are modern, resilient and competitive at a global scale.

For a sizable first step in upgrading our trade infrastructure, Congress should pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, which is slated to include $16.5 billion for ports and waterways. This infusion of federal dollars will also unlock private financing and preserve the U.S. port industry’s position as a major job-creator and economic powerhouse. This Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework is one on which everyone agrees — businesses and labor, retailers and manufacturers, truckers and shippers — that port infrastructure is essential hard infrastructure.

Maritime ports create $5.4 trillion in economic activity annually, representing 26% of U.S. GDP. Ports are also responsible for 30.8 million direct, induced, and indirect jobs.

Ports are vital to the nation’s global trade. They connect U.S. farmers and manufacturers to world markets and provide critical medical and consumer supplies for health care providers, retailers and households every day. Efficient ports help America compete as nations across the globe build larger ships and bigger, better facilities to accommodate them.

America needs a 21st-century freight movement system, and our country has an opportunity to invest now and realize exponential returns. Every dollar invested in port infrastructure produces $2 to $3 of economic growth, based on an analysis by the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System.

In the meantime, the reality is that America’s ports need repairs, improvements and updates. Freight volumes may double by 2045, according to the Department of Transportation, leaving our maritime infrastructure in danger of lagging behind countries like China in terms of our ability to handle more ships and efficiently move freight and materials.

To support our nation’s coastal ports and maritime industry, The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will be a great first steps towards the overall requests of the port industry:

• $20 billion for coastal port infrastructure and intermodal freight movement connectors.

• $6 billion for the U.S. Army Corps to repair and restore navigation channels and 140 critically deficient coastal navigation structures that are essential for safe and efficient freight movement.

• Billions of dollars to support offshore wind energy. These funds are critical to strengthen docks for storage, assembly, and transport of offshore wind energy components.

• Robust funding for electrification of dockside ship connections and zero/near-zero emission port equipment.

Yes, it’s real money, but the stakes are high. As we recover from a crippling pandemic, we can’t afford a widening infrastructure gap with our competitors. Further disruption will only continue to hurt the American economy.

Carl J. Uchytil, P.E., is the Port Director of the Port of Juneau and former President of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators. Mario Cordero is Executive Director of the Port of Long Beach, California, Chair of the American Association of Port Authorities and former Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Chris Connor is President and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities and former Global CEO of Wallenius Wilhemsen Logistics.

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

International Space Station briefly knocked out of position by new Russian science lab

Thu, 2021-07-29 16:00

This Thursday, July 29, 2021 image provided by NASA shows the 20-metric-ton (22-ton) Nauka module, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module as it approaches the International Space Station space station. Russia’s long-delayed lab module successfully docked with the International Space Station on Thursday, eight days after it was launched from the Russian space launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. (NASA via AP)

A newly arrived Russian science lab briefly knocked the International Space Station out of position Thursday when it accidentally fired its thrusters.

For 47 minutes, the space station lost control of its orientation when the firing occurred a few hours after docking, pushing the orbiting complex from its normal configuration. The station’s position is key for getting power from solar panels and or communications. Communications with ground controllers also blipped out twice for a few minutes.

Flight controllers regained control using thrusters on other Russian components at the station to right the ship, and it is now stable and safe, NASA said.

“We haven’t noticed any damage,” space station program manager Joel Montalbano said in a late afternoon press conference. “There was no immediate danger at anytime to the crew.”

Montalbano said the crew didn’t really feel any movement or any shaking. NASA said the station moved 45 degrees out of attitude, about one-eighth of a complete circle. The complex was never spinning, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said.

NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders called it “a pretty exciting hour.”

The incident caused NASA to postpone a repeat test flight for Boeing’s crew capsule that had been set for Friday afternoon from Florida. It will be Boeing’s second attempt to reach the 250-mile-high station before putting astronauts on board; software problems botched the first test.

Russia’s long-delayed 22-ton (20-metric-ton) lab called Nauka arrived earlier Thursday, eight days after it launched from the Russian launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The launch of Nauka, which will provide more room for scientific experiments and space for the crew, had been repeatedly delayed because of technical problems. It was initially scheduled to go up in 2007.

In 2013, experts found contamination in its fuel system, resulting in a long and costly replacement. Other Nauka systems also underwent modernization or repairs.

Stretching 43 feet (13 meters) long, Nauka became the first new compartment for the Russian segment of the outpost since 2010. On Monday, one of the older Russian units, the Pirs spacewalking compartment, undocked from the station to free up room for the new lab.

Nauka will require many maneuvers, including up to 11 spacewalks beginning in early September, to prepare it for operation.

The space station is currently operated by NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov of Russia’s Roscosmos space corporation; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

In 1998, Russia launched the station’s first compartment, Zarya, which was followed in 2000 by another big piece, Zvezda, and three smaller modules in the following years. The last of them, Rassvet, arrived at the station in 2010.

Russian space officials downplayed the incident with Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, tweeting: “All in order at the ISS. The crew is resting, which is what I advise you to do as well.”

The fights Gov. Dunleavy is picking are no coincidence

Thu, 2021-07-29 15:05

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks to reporters during a press conference on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN) ( /)

This year’s state budget, which went into effect July 1, does not include funding for the Power Cost Equalization program. Power Cost Equalization, or PCE, lowers the cost of electricity in rural Alaska to make it comparable to more urban areas like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.

Now, I’m going to digress to explain my own experience with PCE funding. In 1999, I was 10 days into my freshman year as a Republican State House member when my comments questioning PCE funding caused an eruption on the house floor. It was a major eruption, a “Mr. Speaker, we need an at-ease now” eruption. My comments represented the worst of ignorance from a freshman who should have listened more and talked less. Thankfully, there were rural lawmakers, like the late Albert Kookesh, who helped me understand the importance of PCE funding. A year later, I was one of 34 house members who voted to capitalize the PCE endowment.

So prior to Gov. Mike Dunleavy being elected in 2019, the PCE endowment functioned without issue or controversy for decades.

Between 80,000 and 90,000 Alaskans depend on PCE to pay their utilities. They live in nearly 200 communities, some of which are the most economically disadvantaged and high-cost in the nation.

The PCE endowment pays out about $30 million a year from its endowment (it doesn’t require any general funds to support). Without PCE, rural Alaska could see their utility bills double or triple at month’s end with virtually no notice.

Another issue is that PCE actually helps subsidize basic municipal functions. For example, providing fresh water and sewer services. It’s incredibly energy intensive, and some communities will be unable to keep doing it without PCE to subsidize. Seriously: Gov. Dunleavy is literally putting both people and infrastructure at risk.

Now of course, Gov. Dunleavy is publicly saying that he’s a champion of PCE, while I’m saying publicly that with PCE champions like Dunleavy, who needs an enemy?

In 2019, he submitted legislation to dissolve PCE and take the funds for the first time in history. Then he had his former attorney general, Kevin Clarkson, write a memo arbitrarily re-designating the funds. Dunleavy has created a crisis where there was none.

And can we just admit right now that the disgraced former attorney general who penned that memo didn’t have the best legal mind? Seriously, during his brief stint as AG, the guy’s court record smacked of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (zero wins, 14 losses — that’s the Buccaneers, not Clarkson, though it’s understandable to not be sure which is which). I mean, the guy couldn’t lawyer himself out of a wet paper sack, but here he is saying every attorney general before him was wrong on PCE.

But the truth is, Gov. Dunleavy could settle the case today. He could settle the case and agree to protect PCE, but instead he is suing, keeping PCE from being funded.

For Alaskans, the best analogy for PCE is this is rural Alaska’s Southeast hydro dam. It’s their subsidized Cook Inlet natural gas. PCE keeps energy affordable forever. Alaska has plowed billions into such projects for communities all over the state, including billions of dollars for drilling credits, to keep natural gas affordable from Cook Inlet. Seriously, if this were a hydro dam or solar farm, we wouldn’t threaten to tear it down every year.

This crisis is self-made, by a governor who is using rural Alaska as a pawn.

So the question is: Why? Why would a governor who professes to care about rural Alaska so much – and whose wife wrote an op/ed promising that rural Alaska would not be left behind – leave rural Alaska behind?

Because this is part of Dunleavy’s plan. This is all part of a grand plan to create chaos and confusion: While you are going about your life, there are forces at work breaking state government in order to tell you that state government is broken. That education funding is constitutionally broken. That the dividend is constitutionally broken. That PCE is constitutionally broken. That the judiciary is constitutionally broken.

But let me remind you, this state government was not broken until Mike Dunleavy was elected governor. Dunleavy’s strategy is to create a sense of uncertainty and anger about how Alaska funds education, how PCE is funded, how the dividend is funded, how the judiciary is chosen — all in an attempt to get public support for a constitutional convention. The strategy to get rural Alaskans on board for a constitutional convention is to say “Hey, unless we put PCE and the dividend in the constitution, you’ll continue to be at risk.”

Gov. Dunleavy is using rural Alaskans as pawns. His cynical take is that rural Alaska will believe that, in order to fix it for good, they need to crack open the constitution. Enter the dark clouds.

Several months ago it was reported in the ADN that Glenn Clary, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, formally resigned to take a job at Liberty University in Virginia, home of Jerry Falwell, Jr. In a message to members of the Republican State Central Committee, Clary wrote that he will become vice president of strategic partnerships and alliances at Liberty. That role will entail lobbying federal and state legislators as part of a network of Christian organizations.

Now, how coincidental is it that Clary leaves to take on this position at the same time Dunleavy is trying to con Alaskans into thinking Alaska’s constitution is broken? Not coincidental at all. For the past several years, conservatives in Alaska politics have watched as Alaska has turned purple, and they are worried. Fearing they will be unable to stem the tide change, conservatives are looking to rewrite Alaska’s constitution to reflect their antiquated beliefs where women have no rights, Alaskans have no recourse in the court, religious schools get public funding and the likes of Dunleavy’s disgraced former attorney general get to decide what’s moral and what’s not. This is the goal. This has always been the goal.

So how to make it happen? Raise constitutional questions about everything, from how we fund education to how we fund PCE to how we pay the dividend. Then blast Alaskans with a massive amount of lobbying propaganda from Outside religious groups – maybe like the one Glenn Clary landed at – to convince us a constitutional convention is the only way to save Alaska.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the grand plan. This is why, after decades of virtually no constitutional questions about any of these programs, suddenly there are. This is a scam, a plan drawn up on the whiteboard by political religious zealots who want Alaska to become the next conservative wasteland, and PCE funding is leverage to get there.

Meanwhile, the first lady of Alaska, who promised in writing that the governor would never leave rural Alaska behind — well, I believe she owes rural Alaska an apology. Not only has her husband left rural Alaska behind, but he’s left rural Alaska behind, in the dark and without a dividend.

Andrew Halcro is a past executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority. He is a former state representative and past president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. This commentary is adapted from an episode of his podcast, “With All Due Respect.”

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

Congress passes bill to fund Capitol security and increase visas for Afghan allies

Thu, 2021-07-29 14:49

The U.S. Capitol is seen as people walking on the sidewalk with a fence, in Washington, Thursday, July 22, 2021. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., discussed with reporters her reasons for rejecting two Republicans chosen by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to be on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) (Jose Luis Magana/)

WASHINGTON — Congress overwhelmingly passed emergency legislation Thursday that would bolster security at the Capitol, repay outstanding debts from the violent Jan. 6 insurrection and increase the number of visas for allies who worked alongside Americans in the Afghanistan war.

The $2.1 billion bill now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature. The Senate approved the legislation early Thursday afternoon, 98-0, and the House passed it immediately afterward, 416-11.

Senators struck a bipartisan agreement on the legislation this week, two months after the House had passed a bill that would have provided around twice as much for Capitol security. But House leaders said they would back the Senate version anyway, arguing the money is urgently needed for the Capitol Police and for the translators and others who worked closely with U.S. government troops and civilians in Afghanistan.

The bill loosens some requirements for the visas, which lawmakers say are especially pressing as the U.S. military withdrawal enters its final weeks and Afghan allies face possible retaliation from the Taliban.

[Analysis: How the war in Afghanistan showed the limits of US military power]

The money for the Capitol — including for police salaries, the National Guard and to better secure windows and doors around the building — comes more than six months after the insurrection by former President Donald Trump’s supporters. The broad support in both chambers is a rare note of agreement between the two parties in response to the attack, as many Republicans still loyal to Trump have avoided the subject. The former president’s loyalists brutally beat police and hundreds of them broke into the building, interrupting the certification of Biden’s election win.

Democrats have said that if Congress didn’t pass the bill, money would start running out for officers’ salaries by August and that the National Guard might have to cancel some training programs.

“We can’t let that happen,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote. He said the agreement “shouldn’t have taken this long” but that passing the legislation is living up to Congress’ responsibility to keep the Capitol safe “and to make sure that the people who risk their lives for us and protect us get the help they need.”

The bill’s passage comes after four police officers who fought off the rioters in the Jan. 6 attack testified in an emotional House hearing on Tuesday and detailed the “medieval” battle in which they were beaten and verbally assaulted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested on Wednesday that the hearing had perhaps “jarred the Senate to move in a bipartisan way to pass this legislation.”

[‘This is how I’m going to die’: Capitol police officers describe attack by Trump supporters in emotional testimony to House committee]

The more generous bill narrowly passed the House in May, but no Republicans supported it and some liberal Democrats voted against it as well. On Thursday, only 11 Republicans and Democrats opposed it.

In the Senate, Republicans rejected an earlier $3.7 billion proposal by Democrats before they negotiated the final version.

Pelosi said on Wednesday that the legislation was months overdue.

“It’s not what we sent, it’s certainly not what we need, but it’s a good step forward,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re finished, but it does mean that we can’t wait another day until we strengthen the Capital Police force, strengthen the Capitol.”

The legislation would boost personal protection for lawmakers who have seen increasing death threats since the insurrection, install new security cameras around the complex and replace riot equipment the police lost in the fighting that day. It would fund new intelligence gathering and boost wellness and trauma support for the Capitol Police, as many troops are still suffering in the wake of the attack. And it would reimburse the National Guard $521 million for the thousands of troops that protected the Capitol for more than four months after the siege.

Unlike previous proposals, the bill would not provide money for the FBI to prosecute cases related to the insurrection, for temporary fencing in case of another attack or to create a new quick reaction force within the police or military that could respond to events at the Capitol. Police were overrun on Jan. 6 as the National Guard took hours to arrive.

The White House issued a statement of support for the legislation, saying the Biden administration backs the Capitol security improvements and “remains committed to supporting the Afghan people, including by fulfilling our commitment to Afghan nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government.”

For the allies in Afghanistan, the bill would allow 8,000 additional visas and provide $500 million for their emergency transportation, housing and other essential services.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the appropriations panel who negotiated the legislation with the Democrats, said it would be “shameful” not to help the Afghan allies and that they could be killed by the Taliban as the U.S. withdraws.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said senators “intend to keep our nation’s promises to brave Afghans who have taken great risks to help America and our partners fight the terrorists.”

The House overwhelmingly passed separate legislation last week to provide the visas, 407-16. The Pentagon says the troop withdrawal is more than 95% complete and is to be finished by Aug. 31.

Some 70,000 already have resettled in the U.S. under the special visa program since 2008. Administration officials said this month that the first flights of those former U.S. employees and family members who have completed security screening would soon start arriving from the Afghan capital, Kabul, for a week or so of final processing at Fort Lee, Virginia.

___

Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Rep. Don Young urges Alaskans to get the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘They’ll help us fight this virus and get done with it’

Thu, 2021-07-29 14:37

Alaska Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young released a video message on social media Thursday urging Alaskans to get vaccinated.

I want to speak to you today about COVID-19 vaccines. I got #vaccinated, & I'm urging you to do the same. I did it to stay healthy & so that my family, friends, & staff are protected. These #vaccines are safe, effective, & free. Please share w/loved ones. https://t.co/TU3AsGER5X pic.twitter.com/VFtUMLcgTj

— Rep. Don Young (@repdonyoung) July 29, 2021

”There’s much misinformation out there so I’ll be very clear in my position: These shots are safe, effective and they cost you nothing,” Young said in the message.

“They’ll help us fight this virus and get done with it, so we don’t have to wear the mask anymore,” he added.

Vaccination rates have stalled in Alaska; as of Thursday, about 48% of all Alaskans had received one dose, and just over 44% were fully vaccinated.

[Alaska reports 376 COVID-19 cases in one day, the most since January, and three new deaths]

Meanwhile, Young noted in his message the delta variant of the virus is causing strain in Alaska. Case numbers are once again surging in the state, and a group of Alaska hospital administrators this week warned a new wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations — mostly of unvaccinated people — was causing hospitals to revert back to some pandemic protocols.

Young himself was hospitalized for several days in Anchorage in November after testing positive for COVID-19. He said he has since received the vaccine.

“I urge you to do this, as I have done — I got vaccinated, I believe it works, I know it works, and I want you to do the same thing for Alaska and yourself,” Young said.

On Monday, Young put out a series of tweets also imploring his constituents to get the vaccine, saying the vaccine “can help keep you out of the hospital.”

Too many people in AK and across the nation have died. The Delta strain is more transmissible, & its spread is threatening lives and livelihoods once again. Late last year, I contracted COVID-19, and it is NOT an experience I want again. That is why I chose to get vaccinated.

— Rep. Don Young (@repdonyoung) July 26, 2021

Early in the pandemic last spring, Young drew controversy after calling COVID-19 the “beer virus” and downplaying its seriousness at a gathering of senior citizens in Palmer. Weeks later, he walked back those remarks, saying “I did not fully grasp the severity of this crisis, but clearly, we are in the midst of an urgent public health emergency.”

Young’s video message comes amid disputes between members of the U.S. House over a new order to wear masks inside the Capitol, with a number of Republicans refusing to wear masks on the House floor, the Washington Post reported.

Letter: Deficit duplicity

Thu, 2021-07-29 13:50

The political cartoon in the ADN July 26 was somewhat true; the deficit is rising. But it does include monies for moving the USA forward and helping ordinary people, unlike Sen. Mitch’s McConnell’s trillion-dollar deficit that benefited the very rich and prosperous corporations while ignoring the general populace.

So make a seat on that upward skyrocket for the sneaky senator from the poor state of Kentucky; he deserves it. Make no mistake, the duplicitous GOP will now become deficit-conscious and forget their own staggering contribution to its makeup.

— Mike Gogolowski

Anchorage

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

Letter: Olympic joy

Thu, 2021-07-29 13:24

I am not sure who deserves the 100-meter breaststroke Olympic gold medal more — Lydia Jacoby or the Seward watch party! Watch the Twitter feed split-screen of both events and make your own call.

Thank you, Lydia, for making Alaska proud. Thank you, Seward, for making me laugh and cry at the same time!

What pure joy!  

— David Wigglesworth

Anchorage

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

Federal workers must get vaccinated or face mandatory masking and testing, Biden says

Thu, 2021-07-29 13:20

A member of the Capitol Police wears a face mask by a sign stating that face coverings are required, outside a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, Thursday, July 29, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin/)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced sweeping new pandemic requirements for millions of federal workers as he denounced an “American tragedy” of rising-yet-preventable deaths among unvaccinated U.S. employees and others.

Federal workers will be required to attest they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else face mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and other new rules. The newly strict guidelines are aimed at boosting sluggish vaccination rates among the four million of Americans who draw federal paychecks and to set an example for private employers around the country.

“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just got the vaccine,’” Biden said in a somber address from the East Room of the White House. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”

The administration encouraged businesses to follow its lead on incentivizing vaccinations by imposing burdens on the unvaccinated. Rather than mandating that federal workers receive vaccines, the plan will make life more difficult for those who are unvaccinated to encourage them to comply.

Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into adding the COVID-19 shot to its list of required vaccinations for members of the military. And he has directed his team to take steps to apply similar requirements to all federal contractors.

Biden also urged state and local governments to use funds provided by the coronavirus relief package to incentivize vaccinations by offering $100 to individuals who get the shots. And he announced that small- and medium-sized businesses will receive reimbursements if they offer employees time off to get family members vaccinated.

Over and over, the president repeated that the vast majority of those falling ill and dying in this new wave of the delta virus are unvaccinated, putting others at risk and endangering the nation’s fragile economic recovery and return to normalcy.

“It’s an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. It’s such a shame to squander that blessing,” said Biden.

Biden praised the recent increase in Republican lawmakers urging those not vaccinated — many of whom, polling suggests, identify as conservatives — to get their shots.

“This is not about red states and blue states,” he said. “It’s literally about life and death, life and death.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine, though Biden repeated his demand that schools fully open this fall. He also said that public health officials do not yet believe Americans need a booster vaccine despite the highly contagious delta variant fueling the surge.

Biden’s move for the federal government — by far the nation’s largest employer — and federal contractors comes in the face of surging coronavirus rates driven by pockets of vaccine resistance and the more infectious delta variant. A number of major corporations and some local governments are ordering new requirements on their own, but the administration feels much more is needed.

However, pushback is certain. The action puts Biden squarely in the center of a fierce political debate surrounding the government’s ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.

The government directly employs about 4 million people, but Biden’s action could affect many more when federal contractors are factored in. New York University professor of public service Paul Light estimates there are nearly 7 million more employees who could potentially be affected, combining those who work for companies that contract with the government and those working under federal grants.

The pressure on workers could work because evidence shows people would rather get the vaccine than deal with burdens they consider onerous at work, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law School.

“People would much rather roll up their sleeves and get a jab, than undergo weekly testing and universal masking,” he said. “In many ways, this is really not a mandate, it’s giving workers a choice.”

About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated. Biden had set a July 4 goal to get at least one shot in 70% of adults, and is still not quite there. The latest figure is 69.3.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the executive branch employed more than 2.7 million civilians in 2020, with some of the most significant numbers in Republican-led Southern states including Texas and Florida, where substantial vaccine resistance remains.

But Thursday’s move is not just about federal workers.

The administration hopes it will nudge private companies push their workers harder to get vaccines that, while widely recognized as safe and effective, have yet to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“I think we’ve reached this tipping point, and Biden’s announcement will provide a lot of air cover for companies and boards of directors who have difficult decisions facing them,” said Jeff Hyman, a Chicago-based business author and recruiter for start-up companies.

Some of the nation’s biggest corporations have moved to require vaccinations for their workers. Tech giants Facebook and Google announced this week their employees would have to show proof they’ve been fully vaccinated before returning to work.

Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring workers to disclose their vaccination status though not requiring them to be vaccinated.

But fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.

The Biden administration hopes its federal-worker guidance will help change that, by providing a model for state and local governments and private businesses to follow as workers prepare to return to offices this fall.

There is already opposition.

State lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills aiming to prohibit employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. At least six states have approved such bills.

The Justice Department and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have both said no federal laws prevent businesses from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment and the federal policy would take precedent. But the “medical freedom” bills underscore the resistance such guidance may encounter at the state level.

Government actions in New York City and California have already faced resistance from local unions. And prior to Biden’s announcement, some national unions were speaking out against it.

Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the 397,000-member United Auto Workers, said the union encourages workers to get vaccinated but is against requirements because some people have religious or health concerns.

Larry Cosme, President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents 30,000 federal officers and agents, said in a statement while the organization supports the vaccine it opposes compelling it.

“Forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it,” he said.

Letter: Campaign finance issues

Thu, 2021-07-29 13:17

Regarding the proposed fine of $52,650 for campaign finance violations, looks like Mayor Dave Bronson was either inept or hired some totally incompetent staff in his mayoral campaign. His hiding of the expenses and contracts that were part of his election campaign makes one wonder what he will do as mayor of Anchorage as part of his new direction.

Are the charges serious enough to consider having the mayor resign or be recalled?

— Craig Chapman

Eagle River

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

Dozens of Afghan troops killed in insider attacks during U.S. military withdrawal, watchdog says

Thu, 2021-07-29 11:33

Elite special forces unit KKA conduct a clearing operation in an area under Taliban control in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on July 15, 2021. Photographed July 15, 2021. (Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli)

The Taliban’s offensive this spring included more than two dozen insider attacks during the 90-day period ending June 30, a wave of violence that left at least 81 Afghan troops dead, a new U.S. government report revealed Thursday, highlighting the rapid deterioration of security throughout much of Afghanistan as the United States completes its military withdrawal.

At least 37 Afghan troops were wounded in those attacks, according to the report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and American military officials told the watchdog’s investigators that the numbers could be incomplete, citing gaps in knowledge during the pullout, which is now effectively over.

The data underscores the enormous challenges and immense pressure facing Afghan forces, who’ve been left to fight the militants with little U.S. support. Thousands of Afghan troops are killed annually, and those numbers are on the rise. Others, meanwhile, have abandoned the security forces, cutting deals with the Taliban, surrendering their weapons and allowing a growing number of districts to fall under insurgent control.

Afghan military fatalities “have shown an upward trend, especially during the month of June,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan told the inspector general, according to the new report, which notes, too, that the Taliban’s aggressive push to retake lost territory continues.

John Sopko, who leads the inspector general’s office, on Thursday took a dim view of the U.S. military’s efforts to train Afghan troops and the 20-year U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Asked why Afghan security forces are collapsing, he told reporters that people “shouldn’t be surprised,” citing long-running questions his office raised about how U.S. military officials assessed Afghan troops’ capabilities and ensured their sustainability.

“If you don’t have fuel, the Afghan army doesn’t fight. And if they’re not being paid, they don’t fight. And if they’re not getting the bullets and food and other equipment, they don’t fight,” Sopko said. “And I think this is what you’re seeing since the Taliban started their latest attacks.”

Sopko criticized U.S. military leaders for casting the Afghan military in a rosy light for years despite its shortcomings, and for setting unrealistic goals. Then he made a stark prediction.

“Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again,” he said. “That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam: we’re never going to do this again. Lo and behold, we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.”

The U.S. military has, for several years, mostly withheld detailed information about Afghan military fatalities, citing requests from the Afghan government. In the inspector general’s previous quarterly report, investigators said the number of insider attacks on Afghanistan troops had increased by 82% compared to the same period in 2020, though they did not release specific numbers at that time.

The spate of insider attacks came as the U.S. military transferred its remaining bases to the Afghans, sometimes with little or no notice. In July, Afghan officials complained that the United States had departed Bagram air base, the most significant U.S. base in Afghanistan for years, without notice. U.S. military officials have defended the approach, saying the security of American personnel played a role in that decision.

The new report raises concerns about a number of other grim issues.

When the Trump administration in February 2020 signed a deal with the Taliban, setting the stage for the United States’ exit, U.S. officials said repeatedly that decisions about the U.S. military withdrawal would be “conditions-based.” However, while the U.S. military withdrawal ensued, thousands of deadly Taliban attacks targeted the Americans’ Afghan allies.

From March through May of 2021, there were 10,383 “enemy-initiated attacks,” the inspector general’s report said. That’s up from 9,163 and 6,755 during the same time periods in 2020 and 2019.

While senior U.S. military officials have said that the Afghan air force gives the central government in Kabul an advantage over the Taliban, the inspector general assessed that the loss of American contractors who help maintain the Afghans’ aircraft in Afghanistan “could significantly impact” sustainability of their fleet.

In June, the Afghan air force’s ability to fight began to drop, the report noted. The Taliban offensive, coupled with the U.S. military withdrawal, “appears to reduce aircraft readiness rates,” the report said. It noted that Afghanistan’s fleet of AC-208 attack planes had a readiness rate of 93% in April and May, but that it fell to 63% in June. The country’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters had 77% reported readiness in April and May, but 39% in June.

Judge tosses attorney general’s lawsuit against legislative agency over state budget

Thu, 2021-07-29 11:20

An Anchorage Superior Court judge has rejected a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Treg Taylor against an agency of the Alaska Legislature, saying the suit is prohibited by the Alaska Constitution.

Judge Herman Walker heard courtroom arguments last week and issued a written order Thursday morning.

Taylor sued the Legislative Affairs Agency in late June as the governor and lawmakers disputed a legal clause defining the start date of the state budget. The dispute threatened to shut down state government, and while the issue was eventually resolved, Taylor’s suit was an attempt to clarify the issue for future legislators and governors.

Taylor, represented in court by attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh, attempted to argue that the attorney general’s power to bring public-interest lawsuits allowed him to sue in this case, but Walker ruled that “his pleadings and the public statements of Governor Dunleavy and himself indicate that the present suit is in reality an action brought ‘in the name of the state’ and ‘against the Legislature,’ and is prohibited by Section 16 of Article III of the Alaska Constitution.”

This article is developing and will be updated.

Happening this weekend: A ‘bombastic’ tribute to arena rock, and a local music festival at Arctic Valley

Thu, 2021-07-29 11:06

July is drawing to a close, which means one day soon we’ll blink and it will be time dig out the warm coats and chunky boots again. Hold onto that summer feeling with some outdoor fun (plus an indoor steampunk cabaret).

Hairball: A “bombastic tribute” to arena rock — On Friday night the sounds of AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Queen, Motley Crue, Ozzy, Def Leppard, Queen, Poison and Alice Cooper will rumble over Spenard, courtesy of the arena rock tribute band Hairball. There will be food trucks and a beer garden at this all-ages show (underage folks must be accompanied by a legal guardian). Doors open at 6 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $40 at Tixr.com; bring your own chair if you want to sit. (See Facebook for details.)

50/51 Fest: A birthday party for parks — Local bands including Blackwater Railroad Company, Hope Social Club, Sundog and The Jephries will help celebrate Alaska state parks at Arctic Valley this Friday and Saturday.

Food trucks will be onsite Friday through Sunday morning and local beers on tap. Camping is encouraged; reserve RV/trailer parking spots in advance. The road closes at 10 p.m. so if you plan on leaving for the night you’ll have to scram at 9:30 p.m. (Hang out long enough to catch Blackwater on Saturday, and you’re going to be camping out whether you intended to or not.)

Entrance is free. For a full schedule of music and lots more information, go to arcticvalley.org. Friday and Saturday, at Arctic Valley, Eagle River.

Bike the Moose Loop — Anyone who’s walked a trail in Anchorage has likely done a moose loop - the one where you see the moose, back away slowly and return the way you came. But have you done The Moose Loop? That’s when you connect Chester Creek Trail, the Coastal Trail, Campbell Creek Trail and Ship Creek Trail in a 32-mile bike loop.

The route, Anchorage Park Foundation will say, looks kind of like the profile of a moose when viewed on a map. “You see the ears. You see the dewlap. You see the humped back,” they write. Whether you see all that is ... subjective. But traveling it is a great excuse to explore Anchorage’s top-notch trails.


The Moose Loop stitches together many of Anchorage's bike trails for a 30-plus-mile circumnavigation of the city. (Anchorage Park Foundation Map)

[Related: What you can learn about Anchorage by biking 32 miles on the new ‘Moose Loop’]

Tackle the Moose Loop on Saturday with a friendly group in a ride hosted by Bike Anchorage. Participants will start at Westchester Lagoon at 10 a.m. (arrive at least 30 minutes early. There will be a bike mechanic on hand to assist with last-minute minor mechanical issues).

Halfway through the ride there will be a stop with Wild Scoops ice cream, and at the end of the bike ride there will be live music and food available for purchase. $35 for members, $50 for non-members (includes a T-shirt and annual membership to Bike Anchorage). 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Starts at Westchester Lagoon. (bikeanchorage.org)

H3 in Town Square Park — Polynesian reggae band H3 will make Town Square sound like summer for Live after 5, a free weekly concert series. Beer garden provided by Humpy’s. 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday. (544 W. Fifth Ave. More info at anchoragedowntown.org)

Wenches & Wrenches Steampunk Cabaret — Sweet Cheeks is back with an original cabaret written by Rachel Ayers. Enjoy music, dancing, dining and beverages as you soar through the sky on a steampunk cruise. Tickets $30-$35, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sweet Cheeks will also present their weekly Sassy Saturdays burlesque performance at 11 p.m. Saturday (tickets $15-$25). Both shows are beneath The Broken Blender. Find tickets on Centertix. (535 W. Third)

— Victoria Barber

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