JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska plans to emphasize telework for state employees for the next month as the COVID-19 pandemic strains Alaska's health care system.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a memo to state department leaders this week, said the state “must take measures to protect its healthcare infrastructure while still providing essential government services to its residents.” He writes that, effective Monday, the state will emphasize telework “to the maximum extent practical, while still maintaining public facing presence and services.” 

This is to be in effect until Oct. 29, he said. A determination on any possible extensions will be made later, he said.

Brian Penner, director of the union that represents supervisory employees, told the Anchorage Daily News the decision was welcomed.

“We’ve been hearing from supervisors who are not only concerned about their own safety, but concerned about the people they supervise,” he said, adding that the action "should’ve happened earlier.”

Alaska is in the midst of what state health officials have described as a surge in COVID-19 cases, with more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than during a prior surge late last year, according to the state health department. Health care leaders say hospitals face capacity issues, with staffs overtaxed.

The highly contagious delta variant is a likely contributor to the current case counts, along with vaccination rates, waning immunities and the degree to which people mask, keep their distance or engage in other mitigation steps, according to the department.

More than 6,000 state employees were asked to work from home last year. That shifted earlier this year to a “hybrid” system where employees could work from home or the office.

Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the state’s largest public employee union, said a drawback of that system is that it may not be applied equally to every employee because individual departments or agencies make the decisions.

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