Alaska News

Subscribe to Alaska News feed
Alaska Dispatch News News Feed
Updated: 1 min 55 sec ago

Appeals court lifts restraint against Trump book publisher

Wed, 2020-07-01 17:39

NEW YORK — A New York appeals court cleared the way Wednesday for a publisher to distribute a tell-all book by President Donald Trump’s niece over the objections of the president’s brother.

The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division said it was lifting a restraint that a judge put on Simon & Schuster a day earlier that would have blocked distribution of “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”

Although the book was scheduled to be published on July 28, Simon & Schuster said thousands of copies of the 75,000-copy first run of the book had already been sent to bookstores and others.

The appeals ruling, though, left in place restraints against Mary Trump, the book's author and the president's niece, after the president's brother said in court papers that she was part of an agreement among family members not to write about their relationships without permission.

The president's brother, Robert Trump, had sued Mary Trump to block publication. An email seeking comment was sent to Robert Trump's lawyer Wednesday.

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 1999 file photo, Robert Trump, left, joins real estate developer and presidential hopeful Donald Trump at an event in New York. (AP Photo/Diane Bonadreff, File) (Diane Bondaress/)

The appeals ruling restrained Mary Trump and any agent of hers from distributing the book, but the court made clear it did not consider the publisher to be an agent, though that issue could be decided in further proceedings at the lower court.

“The evidence submitted is insufficient for this Court to determine whether the plaintiff is likely to succeed in establishing that claim,” the appeals court said.

In a statement, Simon and Schuster said it was gratified with the ruling, which it said would let Mary Trump tell her story. The publisher said the book was of “great interest and importance to the national discourse that fully deserves to be published for the benefit of the American public.”

It added: “As all know, there are well-established precedents against prior restraint and pre-publication injunctions, and we remain confident that the preliminary injunction will be denied.”

Mary Trump’s lawyer, Theodore Boutrous Jr., said in a statement it was “very good news that the prior restraint against Simon & Schuster has been vacated.” He added that he believed a similar finding was necessary for Mary Trump, “based on the First Amendment and basic contract law.”


Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington and Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this story.

This year’s PFD may be smaller, but it’s helping Alaskans pay the bills during COVID-19

Wed, 2020-07-01 17:14

Street musician Cal Austermuhl performs on a street in downtown Anchorage, Alaska Wednesday, July 1, 2020, the same day Alaska residents began receiving their share of the state's oil wealth. Austermuhl says his $992 share was already spent on bills. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen) (Mark Thiessen/)

Downtown Anchorage street musician Cal Austermuhl had good reason to be singing the blues Wednesday, the same day the state of Alaska began distributing $992 checks that will be paid to nearly every resident.

“Mine’s already spent,” he said of his Permanent Fund dividend. “It goes to outstanding bills.”

Austermuhl relies on performances at bars and markets and tips from summer tourists to supplement his income. But amid coronavirus concerns this year, that's a tough proposition.

As he sang a Jeff Healy Band ballad, a few people donning masks dropped dollars into his guitar case. Otherwise the streets were nearly empty after most cruise ship companies canceled their summer season, eliminating nearly half of the vacation plans for the 2.2 million tourists that annually visit Alaska.

The oil-wealth check, which some in Alaska see as an entitlement, typically is derived from the earnings of a nest-egg investment account the state has seeded with oil money. The fund was established during construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s.

This year's check was paid in part using a separate savings account.

Residents received the first check, $1,000, in 1982. Amounts have varied over the years, and traditionally were calculated on a five-year rolling average to buffer downturns in the economy.

This is the smallest check since $900 was paid in 2013. The biggest check was $2,072 in 2015. The following year, amid a budget deficit, then-Gov. Bill Walker reduced by roughly half the amount available for checks, leaving the rest in the fund's earnings in reserve.

Since then, the size of the check has been set by lawmakers, who in 2018 began using some of the fund's earnings to help pay government costs. Lawmakers also passed a law seeking to limit withdrawals from earnings, heightening tension between how much should be used on dividends and how much should go to state government as the deficit persists.

Some lawmakers worry that if the Legislature takes too much from the earnings reserve, it could imperil future dividends.

The size of the dividend has become a political issue. Checks this year would have been about $3,060 if the calculation had been followed.

"I think that sucks," James Grim said as he wiped down his red 1968 Pontiac Catalina convertible at an Anchorage car wash. "It wasn't set up for the government to get their hands on it. It was set up for the people of Alaska."

James Grim takes a break from detailing his 1968 Pontiac Catalina convertible at a car wash in Anchorage, Alaska Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Grim said he was upset lawmakers have their hands in the fund and reduced the amount of money that's available for the yearly oil wealth check that is sent to nearly every resident. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen) (Mark Thiessen/)

Regardless of the check size, dividend day is a big one for Alaska retailers. “We direct deposited $512,474,838.56 today. Paper checks also went out, for a total payment amount of $592,360,237.82,” Anne Weske, the director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Division, said in an email to The Associated Press.

Some residents use the money for new toys, like big screen televisions or new snowmobiles, and others fund college savings accounts for children or donate to charities. Other residents, especially those in rural Alaska villages off the road system, use the money to pay high fuel bills or help supplement food items at grocery stores, where staples like milk can go for $10 a gallon.

The checks are normally distributed in early October, but this year Gov. Mike Dunleavy moved the distribution date up to help provide relief amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus. The dividend also comes a day after the expiration of a mandate from the Legislature that prevented automobile repossession and evictions for not paying rent.

"It's a nice little shot," said Mike Miller, a bartender at Flattop Pizza in downtown Anchorage. "I think it's cool that they decided to give it early this year, you know, because of what's going on."

Flattop Pizza bartender Mike Miller poses for a photo at the restaurant in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Wednesday, July 1 2020, the same day Alaska residents began receiving their share of the state's oil wealth. Miller says the $992 check that hit his account early Wednesday morning was a nice little boost as his extended unemployment runs out. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen) (Mark Thiessen/)

He was luckier than most, receiving extended unemployment benefits. His partner was an essential employee as a case manager at a women's shelter.

But now that he's back to work, the benefits are ending and there just aren't the customers around to make up that cash flow.

"The people just aren't downtown," he said noting that includes tourists and office employees still working from their homes.

“When the dividend checks come in, you know, everybody’s a thousandaire for a couple few days,” he said, standing in an empty restaurant during what would typically be the noon rush hour. “And a lot of time, like me, they’re going to go spend it at the bar. Fingers crossed, we get a little hit from that.”

Parents sue after Juneau police officer fatally shoots their son

Wed, 2020-07-01 16:57

JUNEAU — The parents of a man who died after a Juneau police officer shot him in December sued the officer, city and others Wednesday, alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations.

Kevin and Virginia Stephens, parents of Kelly Michael Stephens, want to know what happened, attorneys said, adding they so far have been unable to get copies of video and audio recordings surrounding the shooting.

Attorney Ben Crittenden said it would be "simple and reasonable" for the Juneau Police Department to release the recordings. "The video does not lie," he said. "It would tell us exactly what happened."

The Office of Special Prosecutions, within the state Department of Law, declined to bring criminal charges against the officer involved in the Dec. 29 shooting, James Esbenshade. The office's report, from Chief Assistant Attorney General Jack McKenna, cited audio and video recordings and witness interviews among the materials included in the investigation.

McKenna concluded Esbenshade was "legally justified in his use of deadly force in order to defend himself from the threat of serious physical injury posed by Mr. Stephens."

Attorney John E. Sweeney, also representing Stephens' parents, said a decision by authorities not to prosecute does not shield an officer from civil liability.

The lawsuit names as defendants Esbenshade; Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer; the city; and others who were not identified. It seeks unspecified damages.

Messages requesting comment were sent to police spokespeople and left for an attorney who represented Esbenshade during the shooting investigation. The city had no comment, public information officer Lisa Phu said.

McKenna's report said police were called to a supermarket late on Dec. 28 for a report of a man threatening a patron. The man was later identified as Stephens, the report said. Responding officers did not find him, and Esbenshade interviewed a man who said he was threatened, the report states.

After midnight, police received a call of a shot fired, with the caller saying there was yelling and someone attempting to get into her apartment, the report says. Esbenshade responded.

The report says a man identified as Stephens yelled expletives at Esbenshade and said to the officer, "I will kill you," as Esbenshade backed up. The report said Esbenshade had ordered Stephens to stop and said Esbenshade was retreating when he raised his gun.

McKenna's report cited footage he said showed Stephens walking toward where Esbenshade was and swinging a leash and chain.

The report said Esbenshade declined to be interviewed about the shooting.

Sweeney said people who were with Stephens that night “paint a different picture.” He said Stephens was not a threat to Esbenshade.

Tax changes would help Alaska’s fiscal stability

Wed, 2020-07-01 16:52

Oil rigs by night at Prudhoe Bay. (iStock / Getty Images) (Colors of Alaska/)

Alaskans search for fiscal stability. In Alaska, there are essentially two major fiscal sources of revenue that come from oil: royalties and production revenue. These sources provide revenue to fund the basic operation of state government, operating and capital budgets. Permanent Fund dividend payments are part of the operating budget.

Alaska has a fiscal problem which, since 2015, has caused many bad things to happen in our state.

Alaskans feel and know that we are in a deep recession. Alaska has seen continuing job losses for 5 years, 2015 – 2019. The Washington Post reported pre-COVID-19 that Alaska, with the “nation’s highest unemployment rate,” suffers “since 2015, the fastest rate of job losses.”

Since 2015, the front pages of newspapers across this state have featured headlines about massive budget cuts — $135 million to the University of Alaska, the near-elimination of the ferry system, the almost total destruction of Alaska’s capital budget (except for mandatory matching federal highway monies), resulting in losses of thousands of construction jobs, the increasing threat of losses of hundreds of millions of dollars per year to K-12 educational funding, the chopping of arts programs, and meat cleaver budget slashing of funding for our senior citizens and elders. Compounding that is the draining of $15 billion from our Constitutional and Statutory Budget Reserve funds. This list keeps growing.

Losses by Alaska’s families are especially grievous. One of the biggest losses directly suffered by each Alaska family is the massive reductions in funding for Permanent Fund dividends. Loss of oil production revenue under Senate Bill 21 leads to these massive reductions of the PFD annual payments.

The average Alaskan family of four — Mom, Dad and 2 children — has lost more than $28,000 since 2016 because of Alaska’s fiscal problem. The PFD payment loss to each person is more than $7,000: $1,061 in 2016, $1,289 in 2017, $1,328 in 2018, $1,304 in 2019 and about $2,170 in 2020, for a total of approximately $7,152 per person.

When Alaska has insufficient money for an operating budget, the PFD can be and is (too easily) reduced.

What is the reason for Alaska’s fiscal problem? SB 21.

Want to know how to cause Alaska to go into a fiscal crisis and blow through $15 billion in savings and create the need to invade the Permanent Fund? Reduce revenue by billions and billions of dollars. SB 21 did this to Alaska. SB 21 caused Alaska to lose billions and billions of dollars in revenue.

Where have your PFD or the university’s funding or ferry funding gone? To the oil companies. It went to them in the form of credits and the inefficient SB 21 revenue system, which resulted in net negative production revenue for Alaska from 2015-2019.

Whether you are a single person or a family of 4, we can agree something needs to be done to provide fiscal stability to Alaska. There is a real solution for Alaska’s fiscal crisis. It is called the Fair Share Act, a constitutional citizen’s initiative which is on the ballot in November.

The Fair Share Act does several good things. It eliminates the $8 per-barrel credit. It limits cost deductions to only those costs actually related to the production of oil from the field being taxed. It provides transparency, so Alaskans are not in the dark about producers’ real costs and revenues.

States such as Texas are currently better than Alaska in prudently handling their oil ownership rights and taxing authority. Texas receives for its barrels of oil about 30% of market price for a combination of royalty and production revenue. If Alaska were just like Texas, Alaska’s yearly revenue from oil would approximately double. And Alaska’s production revenue, if we were just like Texas, would not have been a net negative during 2015-2019 if the Fair Share Act applied to the sale of Alaska oil.

Remember, the Fair Share Act only applies to Alaska’s legacy fields: Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Alpine.

Under the Fair Share Act, revenue to Alaska from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay would improve by about $1 billion per year at an oil price range of $55-$65 per barrel. Prudhoe Bay is one of the most profitable oil basins in the world. If Alaska gets Prudhoe Bay right, we get Alaska right.

Alaska’s Fair Share is a solution each Alaskan may investigate between now and Election Day. Alaska families should consider voting yes on Ballot Measure 1.

Joe Paskvan is a retired attorney and former state senator. He lives in Fairbanks.

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

Letter: Coming together

Wed, 2020-07-01 16:50

As the new senior pastor of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, I believe now more than ever, we have the opportunity to come together as a community to care for one another and address the divisiveness that has damaged our society.

I want to state outright that ABT condemns all acts of racism. The Scriptures are clear that there is one race, the human race, and every human is made in the image of God. Everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Acts 10:34 further demonstrates this by saying, "Truly, I understand that God shows no partiality."

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been listening, learning and ultimately reflecting. At ABT, our response is one of compassion, understanding and a heart for restoration. We know the truth found in Jesus is the answer, and like Him, we are committed to being a part of the solution. As leaders of this community and state, we know it is our responsibility to lead both in voice and by example. As Christians, we must continue to shine a light on this topic because we are all created in God’s image. In short, there is much work to be done. We are committed to serving the people of our community and promoting awareness that leads to life change. We desire productive and meaningful conversations that bring restoration.

As Paul wrote in Romans 12:17-18, "Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Ron Hoffman

Senior pastor, Anchorage Baptist Temple


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

Proposed tax changes would harm Prudhoe, shorten field life

Wed, 2020-07-01 16:35

Oil rigs by night at Prudhoe Bay. (iStock / Getty Images) (Colors of Alaska/)

Alaska’s Ballot Measure 1 would have a chilling effect on the industry and reduce investments in North Slope legacy fields at Prudhoe, Kuparuk and Alpine. Ongoing investments are the lifeblood of continued oil production. A tax increase of this magnitude would result in fewer investments, less oil and revenue, higher operating costs, and shorter field life.

How much would the proposed tax reduce oil production? By quite a lot, actually. Each well in Prudhoe typically gets work done every three years to maintain production. But at today’s oil prices, Ballot Measure 1 would make most well work uneconomic and field production would rapidly decline.

Prudhoe’s original development was expected to recover 9.6 billion barrels with production shut down by the year 2003. That forecast is accurate for the original plan. Fortunately for Alaska, Prudhoe has a track record of continued investments that improve production. Projects, well work, drilling, and sidetracking have been ongoing in more than 1,000 wells. Improved reservoir understanding, technology and a competitive return on investment enable these activities.

Investments keep legacy fields operating, improve recovery, extend field life and generate state revenue. With investment, Prudhoe’s recovery is forecast to be 14 billion barrels, with decades of life remaining. But the proposed tax increase jeopardizes that future.

A tax increase would make marginal investments uneconomic. Higher taxes result in fewer investments because a) less cash available, b) investments will not be economic, and c) Alaska investments will be less attractive than Outside investments. Production declined during the old tax system for exactly this reason.

Would the trans-Alaska oil pipeline be online if Prudhoe had shut down as planned in 2003? No. The pipeline needs legacy oil production to maintain enough flow to keep the line operational.

Some mistakenly think ongoing investments in legacy fields are no big deal, or merely a given; they don’t attract attention like exploration or lease sales. But ongoing investments increased Prudhoe’s expected recovery by more than 4 billion barrels, and Kuparuk and Alpine see similar percentage increases in recovery from their ongoing investments. The benefits to Alaskans from those billions of additional barrels are huge. We can’t put that future in jeopardy by increasing the oil tax rate.

In 2018, the North Slope was reclassified as a ‘Super Basin’ in the IHS Markit report, “Resurgence in an Arrested, Late-emerging Super Basin.” The current oil tax law is working. Resurgence is occurring. Exploration is active. New fields are being developed. New companies are setting up shop on the North Slope. At the same time, other companies like BP are selling North Slope assets and investing in places like the Permian, indicating they see better value elsewhere. Companies both entering and exiting the industry is evidence the current tax law has found the correct balance point.

What would Ballot Measure 1 do for our future? If passed, fewer investments, lower oil production, shorter field life, and lower long-term State revenue would result. And lower legacy field production will shorten pipeline life and reduce production from other North Slope fields.

Fellow Alaskans, my brothers and my sisters, vote no on Ballot Measure 1. A chill in the oil industry is the last thing we need now as we try to rebuild the Alaskan economy.

Frank Paskvan is a reservoir engineer with 36 years experience in the oil and gas industry, most recently as Team Lead for Prudhoe Bay development planning at BP. Born and raised in Fairbanks, he trained in petroleum engineering at the University of Alaska and raised his family in Anchorage. Exiting BP, he plans to remain in Alaska and hopes for a healthy state economy supported by ongoing oil industry investments.

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

Two men die of stab wounds after fight in Western Alaska, troopers say

Wed, 2020-07-01 16:26

Two Alakanuk men died early Wednesday after struggling over a knife during a fight, Alaska State Troopers said.

Just after 2 a.m. Wednesday, troopers in nearby Emmonak received a report of two men who had died near the intersection where the Alakanuk Annex Store is located, according to an online report.

Ray Phillip, 39, and Bajon Augline, 25, got into a “domestic dispute that turned physical,” troopers said. An investigation indicated that Phillip pulled out a knife during the fight and the men began to struggle for it, troopers said. They were both stabbed during the incident and died at the scene, according to troopers.

Troopers arrived in the area around 3:15 a.m. and said the two bodies will be brought to Anchorage for an autopsy. The investigation is ongoing.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

As COVID-19 spikes, Anchorage officials and trade groups call on bars to implement more precautions

Wed, 2020-07-01 15:01

We're making coronavirus coverage available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting local journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week. SUBSCRIBE NOW

Anchorage health officials say several entertainment and hospitality businesses in the municipality have been linked to COVID-19 cases as the number of Alaskans testing positive for the virus hit new peaks in recent days and weeks.

“People are going out dancing, people are going out socializing in large groups, and in indoor locations,” said Anchorage Health Department Director Natasha Pineda.

“They are going from location to location. That’s going to cause community spread that’s really hard to manage.”

[Alaska records another 42 virus cases among residents and nonresidents]

In an attempt to manage the new surge, Anchorage city officials worked with local trade groups — including the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association and the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. — to release new suggested guidelines on Wednesday for bars and restaurants. Those suggestions include adopting earlier closing hours and taking steps to limit circumstances where customers might not maintain physical distancing.

The suggested precautions were announced during a Wednesday briefing by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz; Pineda; Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer for municipal disease prevention and control; and CHARR President and CEO Sarah Oates.

From June 20 to 29, several people visited establishments in Anchorage while they were infectious and did not have masks on, and they did not maintain physical distancing, Pineda said.

Fifteen cases are associated with local bars, a strip club and a restaurant. Seven cases are associated with a hotel and five cases with a tourism company.

“In this last week, we’ve had a lot of cases that are associated with locations where there’s well over 100 people that they may have interacted with, and we can’t trace or contact any of them,” Pineda said.

Pineda said the city notified all the establishments associated with cases, and asked them to share the information with their patrons and employees. One of the businesses had a log book, and the city is working to send messages to those customers.

“If it is the case that the organizations are unwilling to share with their patrons, then yes, we will be publishing locations and infectious periods where people might have come in contact with the virus,” Pineda said.

[As Fourth of July looms, governor urges Alaskans to mask up and keep their distance]

The surge comes as the city has maxed out its contact tracing capacity, meaning its ability to properly trace the movements of virus carriers and call those who came in contact with infectious people is limited.

As a result, the city and business groups are endorsing seven guidelines:

1. Establishments should require customers to wear a mask before admitting them.

2. Bars and restaurants should reduce or no longer allow dancing or live music, since activities that encourage people to get closer to one another may increase the chances of virus transmission.

3. Music should be kept at a lower volume so people don’t have to stand close to talk to one another.

4. Establishments should close early to avoid operating late at night or early in the morning, when customers might be less likely to social distance.

5. Establishments should limit capacity and increase the distance between patrons.

6. The new rules should be posted clearly for customers to see before entering a building.

7. Bars and restaurants should take advantage of a new, streamlined process to add outdoor seating in parking lots and sidewalks as much as possible.

Oates said while the new guidelines aren’t ideal for an industry reeling from a six-week shutdown, they are necessary and, in reality, a lifeline for businesses that want to avoid another shutdown.

“I can say that, with complete certainty, the alternative industry-wide shutdown would result in the permanent closure of businesses that you or your loved ones own, work at or love to visit,” Oates said.

Chandler said bars are especially problematic during a pandemic. People don’t wear masks while drinking, and they dance, sing and stand close together, he said.

“I have great concern for the safety of the people who work in the bars,” Chandler said. “They’re really working in a danger zone.”

[Anchorage businesses report an uptick in masks following mandate, though compliance isn’t universal]

Some of the cases associated with bars involved staff who were not wearing their masks in the backs of the buildings, Pineda said. Those people spread the virus to one another, and then went home and spread it to others, she said.

Along with urging greater precautions at indoor businesses, Berkowitz called on the public to follow the emergency order on masks that took effect Monday. Everyone except those who cannot wear a mask for medical or safety reasons is required to have a face covering on within indoor public spaces.

Berkowitz said he understands that masks have been politicized. But, he said, Republicans and Democrats support masks.

In an interview Wednesday, President Donald Trump endorsed masks.

Whatever your leanings are, you can find a reason to support masks, Berkowitz said.

“If you want to do it because the governor has suggested it, follow the governor’s suggestion,” Berkowitz said. “If you want to do it because a tall politician has said you should do it, follow that. If you want to do it because a short politician has said you have to do it, follow that. But do it, because the science on this is increasingly clear.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Fill out my Wufoo form!

Alaska records another 42 virus cases among residents and nonresidents

Wed, 2020-07-01 13:38

We're making coronavirus coverage available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting local journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week. SUBSCRIBE NOW

Another 38 Alaska residents tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to state data, sending the number of active resident cases to yet another high since the start of the pandemic.

In total, there are 436 resident cases considered active — meaning they aren’t considered recovered from COVID-19 — and 148 active cases involving non-Alaskans, according to the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Total recovered cases include 528 Alaskans and 50 nonresidents.

Since the start of the pandemic, 978 Alaskans and 198 people from out of state have tested positive for the illness. The state reported one new confirmed COVID-19 hospitalization, bringing the total to 68 since March, and no new deaths.

Fourteen Alaskans have died with the virus, including four people who were out of state at the time.

The new resident cases involve 15 Anchorage residents, two people from Eagle River, two from Palmer, four from Wasilla, one from Willow, one from Homer, two from Kenai, one from Soldotna, three from Fairbanks, three from Tok, one from Nome, one from Ketchikan and one from a smaller community within the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Another resident case was reported in Seward, where a growing outbreak has prompted several businesses to close temporarily. The Seward City Council on Wednesday is expected to consider emergency measures including banning large gatherings, reducing capacity at many public-facing businesses, requiring the wearing of face coverings in public buildings and closing city-owned campgrounds.

Anchorage, the state’s largest city, implemented an emergency order requiring the wearing of masks in indoor public spaces on Monday in response to rising virus cases locally and statewide, though compliance has not been universal. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday urge Alaskans to cover their faces in public and maintain social distance ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.

[As Fourth of July looms, governor urges Alaskans to mask up and keep their distance]

New nonresident cases reported Wednesday involve a visitor in Anchorage, a seafood industry worker in the City and Borough of Sitka plus a seafood industry worker and another person whose locations were classified as “unknown.”

Data show that out-of-state workers in the seafood industry, many of whom must undergo testing before being allowed to work in Alaska, account for 125 of the total nonresident cases reported across the state.

The state reports new data daily based on the previous day’s test results.

On Tuesday, 2,215 tests were run across Alaska, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 114,400, according to state data. Those numbers reflect individual tests run at state labs, commercial labs and health care facilities, and not necessarily the number of people who have been tested.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Fill out my Wufoo form!

Anchorage Symphony Orchestra cancels all in-person concerts through 2020

Wed, 2020-07-01 13:13

Randy Fleischer conducts the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, November 11, 2015.

The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra has suspended in-person concerts for the remainder of the year, canceling the launch of its 75th season.

Executive Director Sherri Burkhart Reddick made the announcement on the symphony’s website June 29, saying the decision was made to protect the safety of its patrons and musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burkhart Reddick wrote that the symphony plans to host virtual performances and is brainstorming new ways to bring the city music.

“(We) are working now to reimagine how we bring you a compelling and engaging unconventional season,” she wrote. “We plan to stream live performances from our Atwood Concert Hall home and other locations, create virtual performances and develop new ways to share music with you.”

Typically, the season starts in the fall and runs through the spring. But the high transmissibility of COVID-19 at large gatherings and the difficulty of social distancing in the Atwood Concert Hall all contributed to the decision, Burkhart Reddick wrote.

After surveying subscribers’ comfort with returning, the symphony found that 80% of respondents were not ready to attend concerts at the Performing Arts Center without additional precautions. As for the musicians, their reluctance to return was similar, the statement said.

Given the social distancing measures that would be required to return, only 350 people could attend a performance in the Atwood Concert Hall despite its 2,000 person capacity, according to the statement. Only 15 to 30 musicians would be able to perform on stage when usually 80 musicians perform together.

The symphony is thankful for the feedback it has received from the community, but with canceled in-person concerts it says it will need more support.

“We are profoundly grateful for your concern,” Burkhart Reddick wrote. “We will need your help, and we will be asking for your support in the weeks ahead.”

The symphony’s last in-person concert was held Feb. 29, and with the hunker down order issued in March, it moved its 74th season finale online. It has since produced a virtual performance of the “Alaska Flag Song.”

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Quinhagak man indicted on murder and sexual abuse charges in killing of 10-year-old girl in March

Wed, 2020-07-01 12:38

A grand jury indicted an 18-year-old Quinhagak man Tuesday in the sexual abuse and killing of a 10-year-old girl, according to the Alaska Department of Law.

Ida Aguchak, 10, in an undated photo. (Courtesy Aguchak family)

Jordan Tyler Mark was arrested in March, when investigators linked him to the disappearance and death of Ida “Girlie” Aguchak.

Aguchak did not return home March 15 and was reported missing the next day, according to charging documents. A team of local searchers found her body later on March 16 on the outskirts of Quinhagak. The crime shook the Western Alaska village of roughly 700 people as investigators searched for answers.

Investigators interviewed dozens of people, including Mark, and collected a DNA sample from him, the charges said. His DNA was found on the girl’s body, according to the charges. He was arrested on counts of first-degree murder, first-degree sexual abuse of a minor, kidnapping and tampering with evidence about a week after Aguchak went missing, troopers said in an online report.

Mark was indicted on the charges of murder, sexual abuse and evidence tampering by a Bethel grand jury Tuesday, the Department of Law said in an online statement Wednesday. He’s in custody with a $5 million bond, according to the department.

State prosecutors said Mark is scheduled to be arraigned in Bethel Superior Court on July 7.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Coronavirus autopsies: A story of 38 brains, 87 lungs and 42 hearts

Wed, 2020-07-01 12:29

An examination room in the morgue at the Franklin County Forensic Science Lab in Columbus, Ohio. (Washington Post photo by Ty Wright) (Ty Wright/)

When pathologist Amy Rapkiewicz began the grim process of opening up the coronavirus dead to learn how their bodies went awry, she found damage to the lungs, kidneys and liver consistent with what doctors had reported for months.

But something was off.

Rapkiewicz, who directs autopsies at NYU Langone Health, noticed that some organs had far too many of a special type of cell rarely found in those places. She had never seen that before, yet it seemed vaguely familiar. She raced to her history books and - in a eureka moment - found a reference to a 1960's report on a patient with dengue fever.

In dengue, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, she learned, the virus appeared to destroy these cells, which produce platelets, leading to uncontrolled bleeding. The novel coronavirus seemed to amplify their effect, causing dangerous clotting.

She was struck by the parallels: "Covid-19 and dengue sound really different, but the cells that are involved are similar."

Autopsies have long been a source of breakthroughs in understanding new diseases, from HIV/AIDS and Ebola, to Lassa fever - and the medical community is counting on them to do the same for covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. With a vaccine likely many months away, autopsies are becoming a critical source of information for research into possible treatments.

When the pandemic hit the United States in late March, many hospital systems were too overwhelmed trying to save lives to spend too much time delving into the secrets of the dead. But by late May and June, the first large batch of reports - from patients who died at a half-dozen different institutions - were published in quick succession. The investigations have confirmed some of our early hunches of the disease, refuted others - and opened up new mysteries about the novel pathogen that has killed more than 500,000 people worldwide.

Among the most important findings, consistent across several studies, is confirmation the virus appears to attack the lungs the most ferociously. They also found the pathogen in parts of the brain, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, spleen and in the endothelial cells that line blood vessels, as some had previously suspected. Researchers also found widespread clotting in many organs.

But the brain and heart yielded surprises.

“It’s about what we are not seeing,” said Mary Fowkes, an associate professor of pathology who is part of a team at Mount Sinai Health that has performed autopsies on 67 covid-19 patients.

[Hollowed-out public health system in US faces more cuts amid coronavirus]

Given widespread reports about neurological symptoms related to the coronavirus, Fowkes said, she expected to find virus or inflammation - or both - in the brain. But there was very little. When it comes to the heart, many physicians warned for months about a cardiac complication they suspected was myocarditis, an inflammation or hardening of the heart muscle walls - but autopsy investigators were stunned that they could find no evidence of the condition.

Another unexpected finding, pathologists said, is that oxygen deprivation of the brain and the formation of blood clots may start early in the disease process. That could have major implications for how people with covid-19 are treated at home, even if they never need to be hospitalized.

The early findings come as new U.S. infections have overtaken even the catastrophic days of April, amid what some critics say is a premature easing of social distancing restrictions in some states mainly in the South and West. A new modeling study has estimated that about 22% of the population - or 1.7 billion people worldwide, including 72 million in the United States - may be vulnerable to severe illness if infected with covid-19. According to the analysis published this month in the Lancet Global Health, about 349 million, or 4% of those people would require hospitalization - underscoring the stakes as autopsy investigators continue their hunt for clues.

At their best, autopsies can reconstruct the natural course of the disease but the process for a new and highly infectious-disease is tedious and requires meticulous work. To protect pathologists and avoid sending virus into the air, they must use special tools to harvest organs and then dunk them in a disinfecting solution for several weeks before they are studied. They must then section each organ and collect small bits of tissue for study under different types of microscopes.

One of the first American investigations to be made public, on April 10, was out of New Orleans. The patient was a 44-year-old male who had been treated at LSU Health. Richard Vander Heide remembers cutting the lung and discovering what was likely hundreds or thousands of microclots.

"I will never forget the day," recalled Vander Heide, who has been performing autopsies since 1994. "I said to the resident, 'This is very unusual.' I had never seen something like this."

But as he moved onto the next patient and the next, Vander Heide saw the same pattern. He was so alarmed, he said, that he shared the paper online before submitting it to a journal so the information could be used immediately by doctors. The findings caused a stir at many hospitals and influenced some doctors to start giving blood thinners to all covid-19 patients. It is now common practice. The final, peer-reviewed version involving 10 patients was subsequently published in the Lancet in May.

Other lung autopsies - including those described in papers from Italy of 38 patients, a Mount Sinai Health study on 25 patients, a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and German researchers on seven and an NYU Langone Health on seven - have reported similar findings of clotting.

Most recently, a study out this month in the Lancet's eClinicalMedicine, found abnormal clotting in the heart, kidney, liver, as well as the lungs of seven patients, leading the authors to suggest this may be a major cause of the multiple-organ failure in covid-19 patients.

[Fauci: US is ‘going in wrong direction’ in coronavirus outbreak]

The next organ studied up close was the heart. One of the most frightening early reports about the coronavirus from China was that a significant percent of hospitalized patients - up to 20% to 30% - appeared to have a heart issue known as myocarditis that could lead to sudden death. It involves the thickening of the muscle of the heart so that it can no longer pump efficiently.

Classic myocarditis is typically easy to identify in autopsies, pathologists say. The condition occurs when the body perceives the tissue to be foreign and attacks it. In that situation, there would be large dead zones in the heart, and the muscle cells known as myocytes would be surrounded by infection-fighting cells known as lymphocytes. But in the autopsy samples taken so far the dead myocytes were not surrounded by lymphocytes - leaving researchers scratching their heads.

Fowkes from Mount Sinai and her colleague, Clare Bryce, whose work on 25 hearts has been published online but not yet peer reviewed, said they saw some "very mild" inflammation of the surface of the heart but nothing that looked like myocarditis.

NYU Langone's Rapkiewicz, who studied seven hearts, was struck by the abundance of a rare cell called megakaryocytes in the heart. Megakaryocytes, which produce platelets that control clotting, typically exist only in the bone marrow and lungs. When she went back to the lung samples from the coronavirus patients, she discovered those cells were too plentiful there, too.

"I could not remember a case before where we saw that," she said. "It was remarkable they were in the heart."

Vander Heide from LSU, who reported preliminary findings on 10 patients in April and has a more in-depth paper with more case studies on the topic under review at a journal, explained that "when you look at a covid heart, you don't see what you'd expect."

He said a couple of patients he performed autopsies on had gone into cardiac arrest in the hospital, but when he examined them, the primary damage was in the lungs - not the heart.

Of all the novel coronaviruses's manifestations, its impact on the brain has been among the most vexing. Patients have reported a host of neurological impairments including reduced ability to smell or taste, altered mental status, stroke, seizures - even delirium.

An early study from China, published in the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, in March, found 22% of the 113 patients had experienced neurological issues ranging from excessive sleepiness to coma - conditions typically grouped together as disorders of consciousness. In June, researchers in France reported that 84% of patients in intensive care had neurological issues, and a third were confused or disoriented at discharge. Also this month, those in the United Kingdom found that 57 of 125 coronavirus patients with a new neurological or psychiatric diagnosis had had a stroke due to a blood clot in the brain, and 39 had an altered mental state.

Based on such data and anecdotal reports, Isaac Solomon, a neuropathologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, set out to systematically investigate where the virus might be embedding itself in the brain. He conducted autopsies of 18 consecutive deaths, taking slices of key areas: the cerebral cortex (the gray matter responsible for information processing), thalamus (modulates sensory inputs), basal ganglia (responsible for motor control) and others. Each was divided into a three-dimensional grid. Ten sections were taken from each and studied.

He found snippets of virus in only some areas, and it was unclear whether they were dead remnants, or active virus when the patient died. There were only small pockets of inflammation. But there were large swaths of damage due to oxygen deprivation. Whether the deceased were longtime intensive care patients, or people who died suddenly, Solomon said, the pattern was eerily similar.

"We were very surprised," he said.

When the brain does not get enough oxygen, individual neurons die and that death is permanent. To a certain extent, people's brains can compensate but at some point, the damage is so extensive that different functions start to degrade.

On a practical level, Solomon said that if the virus is not getting into the brain in large amounts, that helps with drug development because treatment becomes trickier when it is pervasive, for instance, in some patients with West Nile or HIV. Another takeaway is that the findings underscore the importance of getting people on supplementary oxygen quickly to prevent irreversible damage.

Solomon, whose work was published as a June 12 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the findings suggest the damage had been happening over a longer period of time, which make him wonder about the virus's effect on people who are less ill. "The big lingering question is what happens to people who survive covid," he said. "Is there a lingering effect on the brain?"

The team from Mount Sinai Health, which took tissue findings from 20 brains, was also perplexed not to find a lot of virus or inflammation. However, the group noted in a paper that the widespread presence of tiny clots was "striking."

"If you have one blood clot in the brain, we see that all the time. But what we're seeing is some patients are having multiple strokes in blood vessels that are in two or even three different territories," Fowkes said.

Rapkiewicz said it is too early to know whether the newest batch of autopsy findings can be translated into treatment changes, but the information has opened new avenues to explore. One of her first calls after noticing the unusual platelet-producing cells was to Jeffrey Berger, a cardiac specialist at NYU who runs a National Institutes of Health-funded lab that focuses on platelets.

Berger said the autopsies suggest anti-platelet medications, in addition to blood thinners, may be helpful to stem the effects of covid-19. He has pivoted a major clinical trial looking at optimal doses of anticoagulants to look at that question as well.

“It’s only one piece of a very big puzzle, and we have a lot more to learn,” he said. “But if we can prevent significant complications and if more patients can survive the infection, that changes everything.”

Watch live: Anchorage mayor, health officials present noon update on COVID-19

Wed, 2020-07-01 12:04

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz presents an update on COVID-19 in the city at noon Wednesday. Joining him are Natasha Pineda, director of the Anchorage Health Department, and Dr. Bruce Chandler, disease prevention and control medical officer at the Anchorage Health Department.

Residents may participate in the briefing by submitting questions in the comments of the Facebook Live post.

Gov. Dunleavy picks chief assistant attorney general for Alaska Supreme Court

Wed, 2020-07-01 11:51

Dario Borghesan presents arguments on February 4, 2016, at Nesbett Courthouse. Borghesan was named to the Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has named Dario Borghesan, a chief assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law, to a vacancy on the Alaska Supreme Court.

Dunleavy announced his selection in a written statement Wednesday morning, picking Borghesan from among four attorneys nominated by the Alaska Judicial Council in May. Reached briefly by phone, Borghesan said he was told of the news by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.

Borghesan replaces Craig Stowers, who retired from the court June 1. The three other candidates, all Superior Court judges, were Dani Crosby, Jennifer Stuart Henderson and Yvonne Lamoureux.

For his first selection to the state’s highest court, Dunleavy picked one of the Department of Law’s experts on appeals and civil matters. When he became one of eight applicants for the Supreme Court vacancy earlier this year, Borghesan was head of the opinions, appeals and ethics section of the Alaska Department of Law.

That section oversees all civil court appeals and attorney general opinions. It’s also the section in charge of interpreting and enforcing the Executive Branch Ethics Act and is responsible for coordinating the department’s work on Native issues.

Borghesan graduated from Amherst College in 2002 and served in the Peace Corps after graduation, according to his application to the Supreme Court. Stationed in the African nation of Togo, he volunteered through 2004, then worked as a waiter. He attended the University of Michigan law school, working during that time at the school’s law clinic for poor clients and briefly for the ACLU of Michigan, as well as a New York City law firm. He graduated with honors in 2008, and arrived in Alaska soon afterward.

In Alaska, he worked as a clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Justice Daniel Winfree, then in the Department of Law as a special assistant to attorney general (now U.S. senator) Dan Sullivan, before becoming an assistant attorney general.

Writing in his application to the Supreme Court, Borghesan said he believes it is important for the court to adhere to “judicial values.”

Among the most important of those is “independence from partisan politics,” he wrote.

Borghesan is married with two boys and a dog named Rocko. He’s a member of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage and the Friends of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. He also volunteers at his children’s day care.

James Ord, a hunting and skiing partner who wrote a letter of recommendation for Borghesan, called him a “middle of the road kind of guy” who doesn’t go into things with preconceived notions.

“That’s what I thought was going to make him an excellent choice for the position, was that ability to look at that situation holistically, check the assumptions and put them aside,” Ord said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Seward tour company pauses operations after 2 employees test positive for COVID-19

Wed, 2020-07-01 11:11

We're making coronavirus coverage available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting local journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week. SUBSCRIBE NOW

A large tour operator in Seward has shut down after two employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus amid an outbreak prompting consideration of emergency restrictions, including closed campgrounds and required masks.

Kenai Fjords Tours, one of several companies offering wildlife and glacier cruises on the Resurrection Bay waterfront, has “paused operations over the next few weeks” given the escalating COVID-19 situation in Seward, according to a company statement issued Wednesday morning.

“Many of our team members within the community are currently self-isolating and two of our team members have tested positive for the virus and are in quarantine,” Kenai Fjords Tours said in an email from the company’s public relations representative, Tanya Otis.

The company expects to reopen July 10.

Otis did not immediately respond to questions about whether the infected employees came into contact with other employees or passengers.

“With safety as our utmost concern, we will continue to execute rigorous cleaning protocols and are working with local health authorities to ensure the well-being of our guests, staff and surrounding community,” she wrote.

The cruise operator’s decision comes amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak in Seward ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend as cases rise around the state.

[As Fourth of July looms, governor urges Alaskans to mask up and keep their distance]

The first Seward cases associated with the outbreak surfaced last week. Officials recommended tests for anyone who’d frequented two local establishments, the Seward Alehouse and Yukon Bar, earlier in the week.

Now 29 cases involving residents and nonresidents have been confirmed out of Seward, including a few from before the current outbreak. Several hundred test results are still pending.

Local authorities this week canceled all holiday events.

In response to what officials are calling “the rapid increase” of coronavirus cases there, the city council is expected to consider an emergency ordinance Wednesday evening that would close all city-owned campgrounds, ban gatherings of more than 20 people, require face coverings inside public buildings, and limiting restaurants, bars and retailers to 50% capacity inside.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Fill out my Wufoo form!

Hollowed-out public health system in US faces more cuts amid coronavirus

Wed, 2020-07-01 10:06

Jennifer Gottschalk, environmental health supervisor of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, retrieves a file in Toledo, Ohio, on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. She says the job is wearing on her. She has worked for months with hardly a day off. So many lab reports on COVID-19 cases came in that the office fax machine broke. And she fields countless angry phone calls amid community backlash over coronavirus restrictions. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya/)

The U.S. public health system has been starved for decades and lacks the resources to confront the worst health crisis in a century.

Marshaled against a virus that has sickened at least 2.6 million in the U.S., killed more than 126,000 people and cost tens of millions of jobs and $3 trillion in federal rescue money, state and local government health workers on the ground are sometimes paid so little, they qualify for public aid.

They track the coronavirus on paper records shared via fax. Working seven-day weeks for months on end, they fear pay freezes, public backlash and even losing their jobs.

Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%, according to a KHN and Associated Press analysis of government spending on public health. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.

KHN, also known as Kaiser Health News, and AP interviewed more than 150 public health workers, policymakers and experts, analyzed spending records from hundreds of state and local health departments, and surveyed statehouses. On every level, the investigation found, the system is underfunded and under threat, unable to protect the nation’s health.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview in April that his “biggest regret” was “that our nation failed over decades to effectively invest in public health.”

So when this outbreak arrived — and when, according to public health experts, the federal government bungled its response — hollowed-out state and local health departments were ill-equipped to step into the breach.

Over time, their work had received so little support that they found themselves without direction, disrespected, ignored, even vilified. The desperate struggle against COVID-19 became increasingly politicized and grew more difficult.

States, cities and counties in dire straits have begun laying off and furloughing their limited staff, and even more devastation looms, as states reopen and cases surge. Historically, even when money pours in following crises such as Zika and H1N1, it disappears after the emergency subsides. Officials fear the same thing is happening now.

“We don’t say to the fire department, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. There were no fires last year, so we’re going to take 30% of your budget away.’ That would be crazy, right?” said Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, the health officer in Shawnee County, Kansas. “But we do that with public health, day in and day out.”

[Long waits and confusion at Anchorage’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing site]

Ohio’s Toledo-Lucas County Health Department spent $17 million, or $40 per person, in 2017.

Jennifer Gottschalk, 42, works for the county as an environmental health supervisor. When the coronavirus struck, the county’s department was so short-staffed that her duties included overseeing campground and pool inspections, rodent control and sewage programs, while also supervising outbreak preparedness for a community of more than 425,000 people.

When Gottschalk and five colleagues fell ill with COVID-19, she found herself fielding calls about a COVID-19 case from her hospital bed, then working through her home isolation. She only stopped when her coughing was too severe to talk on calls.

“You have to do what you have to do to get the job done,” Gottschalk said.

This Tuesday, March 24, 2020, photo provided by Jennifer Gottschalk shows her getting tested for COVID-19 in a Toledo, Ohio, hospital. As the environmental health supervisor for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, she fielded calls about COVID-19 cases from a hospital bed while fighting the disease herself. She then worked throughout her home isolation, stopping only when her coughing was too severe to talk. (Jennifer Gottschalk via AP) (Jennifer Gottschalk/)

Now, after months of working with hardly a day off, she says the job is wearing on her. So many lab reports on coronavirus cases came in, the office fax machine broke. She faces a backlash from the community over coronavirus restrictions and there are countless angry phone calls.

Things could get worse; possible county budget cuts loom.

But Toledo-Lucas is no outlier. Public health ranks low on the nation’s financial priority list. Nearly two-thirds of Americans live in counties that spend more than twice as much on policing as they spend on nonhospital health care, which includes public health.

More than three-quarters of Americans live in states that spend less than $100 per person annually on public health. Spending ranges from $32 in Louisiana to $263 in Delaware, according to data provided to KHN and AP by the State Health Expenditure Dataset project.

That money represents less than 1.5% of most states’ total spending, with half of it passed down to local health departments.

The share of spending devoted to public health belies its multidimensional role. Agencies are legally bound to provide a broad range of services, from vaccinations and restaurant inspections to protection against infectious disease. Distinct from the medical care system geared toward individuals, the public health system focuses on the health of communities at large.

“Public health loves to say: When we do our job, nothing happens. But that’s not really a great badge,” said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We test 97% of America’s babies for metabolic or other disorders. We do the water testing. You like to swim in the lake and you don’t like poop in there? Think of us.”

But the public doesn’t see the disasters they thwart. And it’s easy to neglect the invisible.

FILE - In this Saturday, May 23, 2020, file photo, a man wearing a face mask is reflected in a mirror as he waits inside his car to be tested for COVID-19 while volunteers take registration information in Annandale, Va. COVID-19 testing was available from Fairfax County at no cost and without a doctor's order. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin/)


A history of deprivation

The local health department was a well-known place in the 1950s and 1960s, when Harris Pastides, president emeritus of the University of South Carolina, was growing up in New York City.

“My mom took me for my vaccines. We would get our injections there for free. We would get our polio sugar cubes there for free,” said Pastides, an epidemiologist. “In those days, the health departments had a highly visible role in disease prevention.”

The United States’ decentralized public health system, which matches federal funding and expertise with local funding, knowledge and delivery, was long the envy of the world, said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

“A lot of what we’re seeing right now could be traced back to the chronic funding shortages,” Omer said. “The way we starve our public health system, the way we have tried to do public health outcomes on the cheap in this country.”

[As Alaska cases of COVID-19 go up, so does demand for contact tracing]

In Scott County, Indiana, when preparedness coordinator Patti Hall began working at the health department 34 years ago, it ran a children’s clinic and a home health agency with several nurses and aides. But over time, the children’s clinic lost funding and closed. Medicare changes paved the way for private services to replace the home health agency. Department staff dwindled in the 1990s and early 2000s. The county was severely outgunned when rampant opioid use and needle sharing sparked an outbreak of HIV in 2015.

Besides just five full-time and one part-time county public health positions, there was only one doctor in the outbreak’s epicenter of Austin. Indiana’s then-Gov. Mike Pence, now leading the nation’s coronavirus response as vice president, waited 29 days after the outbreak was announced to sign an executive order allowing syringe exchanges. At the time, a state official said that only five people from agencies across Indiana were available to help with HIV testing in the county.

The HIV outbreak exploded into the worst ever to hit rural America, infecting more than 230 people.

At times, the federal government has promised to support local public health efforts, to help prevent similar calamities. But those promises were ephemeral.

Two large sources of money established after Sept. 11, 2001 — the Public Health Emergency Preparedness program and the Hospital Preparedness Program — were gradually chipped away.

The Affordable Care Act established the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which was supposed to reach $2 billion annually by 2015. The Obama administration and Congress raided it to pay for other priorities, including a payroll tax cut. The Trump administration is pushing to repeal the ACA, which would eliminate the fund, said Carolyn Mullen, senior vice president of government affairs and public relations at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who championed the fund, said he was furious when the Obama White House took billions from it, breaking what he said was an agreement.

“I haven’t spoken to Barack Obama since,” Harkin said.

If the fund had remained untouched, an additional $12.4 billion would eventually have flowed to local and state health departments.

But local and state leaders also did not prioritize public health over the years.

In Florida, for example, 2% of state spending goes to public health. Spending by local health departments in the state fell 39%, from a high of $57 in inflation-adjusted dollars per person in the late 1990s to $35 per person last year.

FILE - In this Wednesday, May 13, 2020, file photo, Maria Fernanda works on contact tracing at the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Doral, Fla. In state after state, local health departments charged with doing the detective work of running down the contacts of coronavirus patients are falling well short of the number of people needed to do the job. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky/)

In North Carolina, Wake County’s public health workforce dropped from 882 in 2007 to 614 a decade later, even as the population grew by 30%.

In Detroit, the health department had 700 employees in 2009, then was effectively disbanded during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s been built back up, but today still has only 200 workers for 670,000 residents.

Many departments rely heavily on disease-specific grant funding, creating unstable and temporary positions. The CDC’s core budget, some of which goes to state and local health departments, has essentially remained flat for a decade. Federal money currently accounts for 27% of local public health spending.

Years of such financial pressure increasingly pushed workers in this predominantly female workforce toward retirement or the private sector and kept potential new hires away.

More than a fifth of public health workers in local or regional departments outside big cities earned $35,000 or less a year in 2017, as did 9% in big city departments, according to research by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the de Beaumont Foundation.

Even before the pandemic, nearly half of public health workers planned to retire or leave their organizations for other reasons in the next five years. Poor pay topped the list of reasons.

[As Fourth of July looms, governor urges Alaskans to mask up and keep their distance]

Armed with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree, Julia Crittendon took a job two years ago as a disease intervention specialist with Kentucky’s state health department. She spent her days gathering detailed information about people’s sexual partners to fight the spread of HIV and syphilis. She tracked down phone numbers and drove hours to pick up reluctant clients.

The mother of three loved the work, but made so little money that she qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for America’s poorest. Seeing no opportunity to advance, she left.

“We’re like the redheaded stepchildren, the forgotten ones,” said Crittendon, 46.

Such low pay is endemic, with some employees qualifying for the nutrition program for new moms and babies that they administer. People with the training for many public health jobs, which can include a bachelor’s or master’s degree, can make much more money in the private health care sector, robbing the public departments of promising recruits.

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, said the agency “intentionally underpaid people” in a training program that sent early-career professionals to state and local public health departments to build the workforce.

“If we paid them at the very lowest level at the federal scale,” he said in an interview, “they would have to take a 10-20% pay cut to continue on at the local health department.”

As low pay sapped the workforce, budget cuts sapped services.

In Alaska, the Division of Public Health’s spending dropped 9% from 2014 to 2018 and staffing fell by 82 positions in a decade to 426. Tim Struna, chief of public health nursing in Alaska, said declines in oil prices in the mid-2010s led the state to make cuts to public health nursing services. They eliminated well-child exams for children over 6, scaled back searches for the partners of people with certain sexually transmitted infections and limited reproductive health services to people 29 and younger.

Living through an endless stream of such cuts and their aftermath, those workers on the ground grew increasingly worried about mustering the “surge capacity” to expand beyond their daily responsibilities to handle inevitable emergencies.

When the fiercest of enemies showed up in the U.S. this year, the depleted public health army struggled to hold it back.

FILE - This Wednesday, May 13, 2020, file photo made with a fisheye lens shows a list of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Salt Lake County early in the coronavirus pandemic at the county health department in Salt Lake City. Health officials later moved to tracking the cases in an online database, but the white board remains in the office as a reminder of how quickly the coronavirus spread. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) (Rick Bowmer/)


A decimated surge capacity

As the public health director for the Kentucky River District Health Department in rural Appalachia, Scott Lockard is battling the pandemic with 3G cell service, paper records and one-third of the employees the department had 20 years ago.

He redeployed his nurse administrator to work round-the-clock on contact tracing, alongside the department’s school nurse and the tuberculosis and breastfeeding coordinator. His home health nurse, who typically visits older patients, now works on preparedness plans. But residents aren’t making it easy on them.

“They’re not wearing masks, and they’re throwing social distancing to the wind,” Lockard said in mid-June, as cases surged. “We’re paying for it.”

Even with more staff since the HIV outbreak, Indiana’s Scott County Health Department employees worked evenings, weekends and holidays to deal with the pandemic, including outbreaks at a food packing company and a label manufacturer. Indiana spends $37 a person on public health.

“When you get home, the phone never stops, the emails and texts never stop,” said Hall, the preparedness coordinator.

All the while, she and her colleagues worry about keeping HIV under control and preventing drug overdoses from rising. Other health problems don’t just disappear because there is a pandemic.

“We’ve been used to being able to `MacGyver’ everything on a normal day, and this is not a normal day,” said Amanda Mehl, the public health administrator for Boone County, Illinois, citing a TV show.

Pezzino, whose department in Kansas serves Topeka and Shawnee County, said he had been trying to hire an epidemiologist, who would study, track and analyze data on health issues, since he came to the department 14 years ago. Finally, less than three years ago, they hired one. She just left, and he thinks it will be nearly impossible to find another.

While epidemiologists are nearly universal in departments serving large populations, hardly any departments serving smaller populations have one. Only 28% of local health departments have an epidemiologist or statistician.

Strapped departments are now forced to spend money on contact tracers, masks and gloves to keep their workers safe and to do basic outreach.

Melanie Hutton, administrator for the Cooper County Public Health Center in rural Missouri, pointed out the local ambulance department got $18,000, and the fire and police departments got masks to fight COVID-19.

“For us, not a nickel, not a face mask,” she said. “We got (5) gallons of homemade hand sanitizer made by the prisoners.”

Public health workers are leaving in droves. At least 34 state and local public health leaders have announced their resignation, retired or been fired in 17 states since April, a KHN/AP review found. Others face threats and armed demonstrators.

Ohio’s Gottschalk said the backlash has been overwhelming.

“Being yelled at by residents for almost two hours straight last week on regulations I cannot control left me feeling completely burned out,” she said in mid-June.

Many are putting their health at risk. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, public health worker Chantee Mack died after, family and co-workers believe, she and several colleagues contracted the disease in the office.

Roland Mack holds a poster with pictures and messages made by family members in memory of his sister, Chantee Mack, in District Heights, Md., on Friday, June 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Federica Narancio) (Federica Narancio/)


A difficult road ahead

Pence, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on June 16, said the public health system was “far stronger” than it was when coronavirus hit.

It’s true that the federal government this year has allocated billions for public health in response to the pandemic, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. That includes more than $13 billion to state and local health departments, for activities including contact tracing, infection control and technology upgrades.

A KHN/AP review found that some state and local governments are also pledging more money for public health. Alabama’s budget for next year, for example, includes $35 million more for public health than it did this year.

But overall, spending is about to be slashed again as the boom-bust cycle continues.

In most states, the new budget year begins July 1, and furloughs, layoffs and pay freezes have already begun in some places. Tax revenues evaporated during lockdowns, all but ensuring there will be more. At least 14 states have already cut health department budgets or positions or were actively considering such cuts in June, according to a KHN/AP review.

Since the pandemic began, Michigan temporarily cut most of its state health workers’ hours by one-fifth. Pennsylvania required more than 65 of its 1,200 public health workers to go on temporary leave, and others lost their jobs. Knox County, Tennessee, furloughed 26 out of 260 workers for eight weeks.

Frieden, formerly of the CDC, said it’s “stunning” that the U.S. is furloughing public health workers amid a pandemic. The country should demand the resources for public health, he said, just the way it does for the military.

“This is about protecting Americans,” Frieden said.

Cincinnati temporarily furloughed approximately 170 health department employees.

Robert Brown, chair of Cincinnati’s Primary Care Board, questions why police officers and firefighters didn’t face similar furloughs at the time or why residents were willing to pay hundreds of millions in taxes over decades for the Bengals’ football stadium.

“How about investing in something that’s going to save some lives?” he asked.

In 2018, Boston spent five times as much on its police department as its public health department. The city recently pledged to transfer $3 million from its approximately $60 million police overtime budget to its public health commission.

Looking ahead, more cuts are coming. Possible budget shortfalls in Brazos County, Texas, may force the health department to limit its mosquito-surveillance program and eliminate up to one-fifth of its staff and one-quarter of immunization clinics.

Months into the pandemic response, health departments are still trying to ramp up to fight COVID-19. Cases are surging in states including Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Meanwhile, childhood vaccinations began plunging in the second half of March, according to a CDC study analyzing supply orders. Officials worry whether they will be able to get kids back up to date in the coming months. In Detroit, the childhood vaccination rate dipped below 40%, as clinics shuttered and people stayed home, creating the potential for a different outbreak.

Cutting or eliminating non-COVID activities is dangerous, said E. Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Cuts to programs such as diabetes control and senior nutrition make already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable, which makes them more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID. Everything is connected, he said.

It could be a year before there’s a widely available vaccine. Meanwhile, other illnesses, including mental health problems, are smoldering.

The people who spend their lives working in public health say the temporary coronavirus funds won’t fix the eroded foundation entrusted with protecting the nation’s health as thousands continue to die.


Michelle R. Smith is a correspondent for the AP, and Lauren Weber, Hannah Recht, Laura Ungar and Anna Maria Barry-Jester are writers for KHN.

Contributing to this report were: Associated Press writers Mike Stobbe in New York; Mike Householder in Toledo, Ohio; Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Utah; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland; Jim Anderson in Denver; Sam Metz in Carson City, Nevada; Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri; Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and AP Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber in Washington.

This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and KHN (Kaiser Health News), which is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Hilcorp takes over BP’s North Slope oil production as $5.6 billion deal advances

Wed, 2020-07-01 10:05

Workers with Signco Quality Signs worked 200 feet in the air as they finished installing the Hilcorp Alaska sign on the JL Tower, Anchorage's fourth tallest building, on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Hilcorp Energy has assumed management of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, marking the end of an era for BP oil production in Alaska and vaulting the smaller company into a position as the state’s second-largest oil producer, the companies announced Wednesday.

The new role for Hilcorp marks the near-end of a process that began in August, when BP announced it would sell its Alaska assets to the private company from Houston, Texas, for $5.6 billion.

Alaska regulators on Monday approved the sale of BP’s oil field assets, opening the door for the companies to conclude the major portion of the deal involving production assets on Tuesday.

[In initial step, Alaska approves chunk of BP’s $5.6 billion deal with Hilcorp]

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska, a state agency, must still complete its review of the sale involving the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline that transports the oil, a step expected in September. If that deal is approved, Hilcorp will take over BP’s 49% share in that asset.

As part of the deal, Hilcorp acquires BP’s 26% interest in the giant Prudhoe Bay field. It also acquires BP’s interest in the Point Thomson and Milne Point fields.

Hilcorp already owns a share at Milne Point and as operator has doubled production there, with plans to hit 40,000 barrels daily later this year, according to its statement on Wednesday.

Hilcorp will operate Prudhoe Bay in a partnership that includes itself, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, the largest oil producer in Alaska.

“Today we are significantly growing and strengthening our footprint in Alaska,” said Jason Rebrook, president of Hilcorp Energy, in a prepared statement. “I’m especially proud of the team that’s worked diligently over the past 11 months to close this transaction and put us in a position to be ready for day one operations.”

Hilcorp, founded in 1989, has grown swiftly in Alaska. It arrived in the state nearly a decade ago, becoming the dominant oil and gas producer in the Cook Inlet region in Southcentral Alaska.

[Valdez appeals decision that allowed Hilcorp to keep finances private in $5.6 billion deal with BP Alaska]

It began acquiring BP assets in 2014, establishing a large presence on the North Slope.

As a result of the latest transaction with BP, Hilcorp has said it hired roughly half of BP’s workforce of about 1,500 employees. The Hilcorp workforce has grown from about 550 employees to more than 1,450, with more expected to be added in the coming months, the company said.

“We look forward to continuing to drive economic growth, create Alaskan jobs and contribute to local economies for decades to come,” said Greg Lalicker, chief executive of Hilcorp Energy.

BP played a pioneering role in the Alaska oil production that continues to support the state’s economy.

It arrived in the state in 1959, and benefited heavily from Prudhoe Bay oil production, the most prolific field in U.S. history with more than 13 billion barrels produced since 1977.

The field remains in the largest in the state, though production there has shrunk for decades.

BP’s production in the state has also fallen sharply, down from about 125,000 barrels of oil in 2014, to about 70,000 barrels daily last year. The oil will roughly double Hilcorp’s energy production in Alaska.

Janet Weiss, regional president of BP Alaska, expressed gratitude on Wednesday for BP’s workforce and the state.

“I am proud of our employees and contractors who have done extraordinary work to make this a safe and seamless transition. Thank you,” she said in a statement. “And to the state of Alaska, we deeply value our role in Alaska’s history, and thank the governor and his team for positioning Prudhoe Bay for many more years of competitive production.”

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Police in Georgia sued for taking down wrong man

Wed, 2020-07-01 09:33

In this still image from body camera video released by the Valdosta police, Antonio Arnelo Smith is slammed face-first to the ground by a Valdosta police sergeant, in Valdosta, Ga., on Feb. 8, 2020. The video shows Smith handing his driver's license to a police officer and answering questions cooperatively before a second officer, Sgt. Billy Wheeler, approaches him from behind, wraps him in a bear hug and slams him face-first to the ground. Smith is crying in pain when he's told there's a warrant for his arrest. Officers are then told the warrant was for someone else. (Valdosta Police via AP)

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Body camera video shows Antonio Arnelo Smith handing his driver’s license to a Black police officer and answering questions cooperatively before a white officer walks up behind him, wraps him in a bear hug and slams him face-first to the ground.

“Oh my God, you broke my wrist!” the 46-year-old Black man screams as two more white Valdosta officers arrive, holding him down and handcuffing him following the takedown. One eventually tells Smith he’s being arrested on an outstanding warrant, and is immediately corrected by the first officer: They’ve got the wrong man.

Clutching his wrist and whimpering, Smith was let go without charges after the violent encounter on Feb. 8 in Valdosta, Georgia, near the Florida state line.

Now he's suing all four officers, as well as Valdosta's police chief, mayor and others, saying police used excessive force and violated his civil rights.

“When you see that video, you can’t help but say this is a travesty,” said Nathaniel Haugabrook, one of Smith’s attorneys. “Nobody should be done that way.”

The federal lawsuit comes during a national outcry over police brutality against people of color, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Haugabrook said police stopped Smith for questioning after a drug store employee reported him for panhandling outside.

“Obviously it has some racial tones to it,” Haugabrook said Thursday.

Smith's encounter with police went largely unnoticed for more than four months, until he filed suit June 19. The city of Valdosta issued a statement three days after that, saying police are conducting an internal investigation and that Smith never filed a complaint.

City officials also released one of the four body camera recordings — that of the officer who grabbed Smith, which doesn't show the takedown because the camera is pressed to Smith's back. Valdosta officials didn't release body camera videos with a clearer view until after the Valdosta Daily Times published one received from Smith's attorneys.

The city's statement said police responding to a report that a man was harassing customers and asking for money outside the drug store simultaneously found two suspects nearby who fit the description. Officers questioning one of them learned he had an outstanding arrest warrant. The other was Smith.

In this still image from body camera video released by the Valdosta police, Antonio Arnelo Smith, center, recovers after being slammed face-first to the ground by a Valdosta police sergeant, in Valdosta, Ga., on Feb. 8, 2020. (Valdosta Police via AP)

The city’s statement says that an officer, identified in the lawsuit as Sgt. Billy Wheeler, approached Smith mistakenly believing he was the wanted man, and “advised him to place his hands behind his back.” Smith “began to resist by pulling his arms forward and tensing his body,” prompting Wheeler to take him to the ground, the city said.

This is not an accurate description of what the officers' body cameras recorded.

The video shows Wheeler walk up silently behind Smith, grab his right wrist and pin both of his arms to his sides in a bear hug. Only then does he order Smith to put his pinned hands behind his back, and Wheeler slams him to the ground almost immediately thereafter.

Asked about this discrepancy, a city spokeswoman, Ashlyn Johnson, said the city had no further comment. She said she did not know the status of the officers involved.

“The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department take any report of any injury to a citizen seriously,” the statement said.

The videos, recorded at noon on a clear, sunny day, show the encounter from beginning to end. Smith cries out in pain that his wrist is broken, and Wheeler says: “Yeah, he might be broke.” The officers remove the handcuffs within about a minute and call for an ambulance. Still on the ground, Smith asks why he’s being arrested.

“We have a warrant for your arrest,” one officer tells Smith.

That prompts the officer who first stopped Smith, identified in court records as Dominic Henry, to correct them.

“Hey, this was another guy,” Henry says. “The guy with the warrant’s over there. No, there’s two different people.”

Smith leaves the scene before paramedics arrive. His lawyer said Smith wanted to get away from the officers as quickly as possible, and the wrist never healed properly.

Smith’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeks unspecified monetary damages. In a letter sent to Valdosta officials seeking a settlement before the lawsuit was filed, Smith’s attorneys asked for $700,000. But he also wants something more, his lawyer said: A commitment by the Valdosta Police Department to reform.

This year′s $992 Permanent Fund dividend will be paid starting July 1

Wed, 2020-07-01 09:17

This year’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend will be $992, the Alaska Department of Revenue said in a written statement on June 12.

While state legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy referred to a “thousand-dollar dividend” this year, lawmakers didn’t set a precise amount. Instead, the state budget passed earlier this year calls for spending $680 million. That amount, divided among the number of recipients, results in the $992 payment.

The dividend will be paid July 1 to Alaskans who receive their payments by direct deposit and are deemed eligible by June 19, the revenue department said. Paper checks will be mailed starting July 1 to Alaskans without direct deposit. Alaskans not deemed eligible by June 19 will be paid starting July 23, the Department of Revenue said.

In May, Dunleavy move up the dividend payment date from October to counteract some of the negative economic effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Since 2016, legislators or the governor have set the Permanent Fund dividend amount during the annual budget-making process. A traditional dividend-payment formula, used from 1982 through 2015, remains on the books but is not binding, according to a 2017 decision by the Alaska Supreme Court.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

An opportunity to listen as our ‘Unheard’ project becomes a museum installation

Wed, 2020-07-01 08:02

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. Read “Unheard,” our collection of stories from survivors choosing to speak.

An installation of the "Unheard" project will be on display at the Anchorage Museum beginning July 1, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Over the past year, the reporting teams at the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica have explored Alaska’s high rate of sexual assault and have worked to bring attention to the survivors who have gone unheard. On Wednesday, we’ll add another medium to the collection: an outdoor installation at the Anchorage Museum.

The installation launches at the close of a monthlong project about 29 survivors who chose to speak about what happened to them. Each day in June, we published a portrait and a story of a survivor of sexual assault on the front page of the paper. All of the participants worked closely with Daily News photographers to create a portrait true to them. (We wrote about that process in this essay.) These individual features culminate Wednesday with a “space of silence” dedicated to those who are not yet ready to share their stories.

Museum director and CEO Julie Decker says she believes the museum’s platforms are another way to support people telling their own stories, in their own voices: “Change comes through awareness and understanding. Without the stories, there is silence.”

The portraits will be displayed as large vinyl posters on the museum’s outdoor south-facing facade near A Street, where passersby can see them, even in the middle of a pandemic when the museum has reopened but with limited capacity inside. Occupying 27 9-foot panels along the museum’s wall, the photography installation also includes recorded audio from many of the people featured, literally making their voices heard. It will remain on view through mid-September. The museum sits on a busy and accessible downtown street, which will allow the public to encounter the work as public art.

To learn more about the process to transform “Unheard” into public art, we spoke to Decker and Chief Design Officer Jonny Hayes. Marie Sakar, one of the 27 people whose profiles are on display, shared why she’s participating.

Some quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

An installation of the Unheard project will be on display at the Anchorage Museum beginning July 1, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Julie Decker, director and CEO

Why did you think that this project had the potential to become a museum installation?

It’s a difficult issue, but examining why things aren’t getting better for sexual assault survivors is partly about listening, understanding power and recognizing both the power of and lack of power in silence. The installation is part of listening to people’s stories and about supporting the idea of people telling their own stories, in their own voice. We also wanted to help recognize the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica and journalism as a public service. Museums are part of reflecting the voices of a community. It’s an important time for voices to be heard.

What do you hope people will take from this?

The victims are not defined only by the violence against them. For other victims, we hope part of the message is that they are not alone.

What special considerations did you take into account, given the intensely personal nature of the content and the public installation?

We want to be mindful of the difficulty of the topic and wanted to take care with placement, message and making sure that part of the text was information about who to call if you’re in crisis and ways for other victims to tell their own stories.

An installation of the Unheard project will be on display at the Anchorage Museum beginning July 1, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Jonny Hayes, chief design officer

How does the exterior installation build upon the “Unheard” project?

By increasing the size and elevating the portraits within the space itself, each of the participants’ narratives is intended to communicate the individuals’ sense of being heard in an urban context, visually. A key aspect of the entire project and its methodology was to empower the narrators, and so establishing that relationship in a physical space made a lot of sense.

What do you have to do to make an ambitious project like this work?

The outdoor installation came together quickly and with so much work done by the journalists and publication teams. For an installation that means designating the right space to facilitate the content and fully evaluate existing assets (power, light, surfaces, etc.) so that the installation can work as a series of systems. As the project needed to conform to the set publication timeline, the design and space had to be thoroughly measured, evaluated, digitally generated and content incorporated as part of the selection and review process. The sensitivity of “Unheard” subject matter meant that there were additional layers of coordination and cohesion across the multiple platforms being delivered. The visuals were developed in tandem with other designers’ aesthetics to appear consistent and complementary to the publication teams’ efforts while standing on its own in a unique space.

Tell us about the panels and the audio.

The outdoor installation consists of 27 individual participant stories set on a series of walls stretching about 150 linear feet. (They are) set back in a colonnade along the south facade of the Anchorage Museum and adjacent to a pedestrian area on Seventh Avenue. Each individual panel is about 9 feet tall by 4 feet wide. The portrait is placed slightly above eye height with a color-block base that includes text that is legible from a few feet away so visitors can connect to the stories at various distances. Once visitors enter into the colonnade, they are greeted with audio statements by participants who opted to be recorded. A large title panel describing the project is placed immediately adjacent to the Museum entry and is accompanied by a space of silence, recognizing those who are unable to share their story, with a link to resources for those in crisis. The portraits and text are designed to be the primary points of focus with all supporting elements developed to create a setting that is personal, feels quiet and integrated into the environment for a sense of belonging.

Marie Sakar, 48, is an elementary school teacher and mother who lives in her home village of Chuathbaluk, on the Kuskokwim River. Her story and portrait were featured in the “Unheard” project.

How has having your story published impacted your life?

It has a sense of freedom. I shared it with family members, elders, young girls and boys in my village who have no internet access, and got unexpected affirmation, confirmation and appreciation for being so brave to share my story.

What made you want to participate in the Anchorage Museum installation?

After all the years of being invisible, it gives me a sense of finally being seen, and heard. I’m not afraid to tell my story anymore. I have finally come out of the darkness.

What made you decide to participate in the “Unheard” project?

I made the decision to participate in the “Unheard” project because the judicial system let me down. When I finally did say something, I was told, “The statute of limitations has already passed.” Many of the perpetrators who violated my mind and my body are still walking free, and have hurt other girls and women the same way they hurt me. If they have the audacity to realize that one of their victims is speaking up, maybe, just maybe, they’ll think twice about their actions.

What do you hope people who see these portraits learn or come away with?

It’s OK to tell your story. People will still love, honor, respect and accept you regardless of what atrocities happened to you.

Read our collection of stories from survivors who chose to speak

For more on resources for survivors, visit

On Friday, July 10, at 12 p.m. AKDT/4 p.m. EDT, join Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica for a digital event with members of the reporting team, an advocate who works with survivors of sexual assault in Alaska and a person who chose to share their story in “Unheard.” They’ll speak about how they brought this careful and collaborative reporting to light and the impact spurred by the project. Register here.