I frequently receive emails and messages telling me that I shouldn't be writing critically about the person some claim is the only thing keeping Alaska from turning into Wisconsin or El Paso. Still, amid a pandemic that is straining Alaska's healthcare capacity and exhausting its healthcare workers, it's worth pointing out that not all believe Alaska's response to the virus has been exemplary or even adequate. If you don't find the opinions of other Alaskans to be noteworthy or interesting, then this isn't the read for you.
Governor Dunleavy has worked steadily to open Alaska. He has loosened travel restrictions and has taken an off-hand approach to dealing with the virus, both imploring and trusting Alaskans to do the right thing by social distancing, wearing masks and executing their own "personal responsibility." Alaskans regularly assail Dunleavy for refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate and chide him for his clear lack of leadership and abdication of responsibility. Dunleavy has clearly demonstrated that his only interest is in keeping the state open and has accepted sickness, hospitalizations, stress on Alaska's fragile healthcare system, and death as collateral damage.
As the Governor tweets more about drilling than he does about COVID-19, it's to be expected that Alaskans would naturally seek alternative leadership and for many, that leader has been Dr. Anne Zink.
Dr. Zink has 13 years of experience in emergency medicine and joined DHSS from the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where she served as the Emergency Department medical director from 2010-2018, and was on the Board of Trustees between 2012-2018. In addition, she helped create the High-Utilizer Mat-Su (HUMS) (2017-18) program that aims to improve patient health and cost savings for some of the state's most vulnerable patients.
Dr. Anne Zink is indeed an articulate and obviously caring individual, and I believe many, if not most Alaskans, would echo those sentiments. But as the Chief Medical Officer for Alaska — and thus all Alaskans — an increasing number of people seem to be expecting more from her as Alaska's deaths, new cases, and hospitalizations increase weekly. How realistic those expectations are is another story all together.
Dr. Zink,when asked during an ECHO event "whether the Governor has considered a state-wide mask mandate," replied that the role of Alaska DHSS is to advise the Governor and schools, saying that DHSS does not have the "authority to do mandates," and that agencies and leadership officials all receive the same information from DHSS.
Zink regularly does public Zoom and Echo events with school districts, health officials, and yesterday joined an event hosted by the Alaska Black Caucus detailing ethnic and racial disparities in the age of COVID-19. She is often quoted by news sources as they seek COVID-19 answers related to Alaska's pandemic response, but many citizens feel Dr. Zink's unwillingness or inability to call for a statewide mask mandate is unacceptable.
Last evening on Twitter, the husband of an Alaska healthcare worker shared that his wife had been diagnosed with COVID-19. As people from across the state shared their well-wishes with the couple, one response caught everyone's eye -- Dr. Anne Zink herself wishing them both "a speedy recovery."
As you can see, some of the responses to Zink's well-wishing were met with some resistance.
Anchorage resident Christopher Blake shared his personal COVID-19 experience on social media earlier this month. Mr. Blake had been sent home from the hospital with an Oximeter so he could monitor his own oxygen levels and was quite sick at the time.
Blake responded to Dr. Zink writing, "I was so sick a few weeks ago with (COVID) I thought I was going to die. I'm still dealing with the residuals. The narrative that Alaskans will do the right thing is false. Bars are open, there’s no mask mandate. What exactly are we doing to slow the spread?"
Twitter user Wade Gruhl directly responded to Dr. Zink telling her, "Tell your AWOL boss to do his fucking job or get out of the way so someone else can," and it is this statement that summarizes the frustrations many Alaskans feel towards Alaska's response to it — that Alaskans expect, either realistically or unrealistically, Dr. Zink to do more.
I chatted with theoriginal author of the Twitter post Travis Neff:
Q. Do you have any thoughts on the comments made by Dr. Zink in response to your Twitter post?
Travis Neff: "Many thoughts. First and foremost, Dr. Zink does not need her role as Chief Medical Officer for any financial reason. As an ER doctor she is extremely well compensated. Choosing to serve as CMO should come from a deep-seated desire to serve public health, above all other considerations, career aspirations included. By not using her powerful voice to call for a statewide mask mandate, she is doing a profound disservice to all Alaskans. She absolutely knows this is the simplest and most effective way to save lives, and she displays riveting cowardice in failing to call for it.
Second, she has in more than one interaction on Twitter directed folks to her "weekly public echos." As a fairly tech-savvy person, I have no idea what she is talking about. She does not provide information on scheduling, nor is there a link in her Twitter profile. It is an empty recommendation.
Dr. Zink is basically a macabre ticker tape at this point, awake late each night rolling out data points. Those data points are people, those data points are lives that are imperiled while she does nothing courageous to address them. I am not a physician or epidemiologist, but you don't need to be one to know we are at a crisis point in our ability to respond to this pandemic. This is like a train, or a barge, they do not stop on a dime. The time to pull the emergency lever has come and gone without a flinch from her, or the Governor. So I'm just looking for leaders who have the conviction to lead, leaders willing to make tough choices, leaders willing to speak truth to power. I have no idea where they are right now. And yes, I'm angry, but how can you look at this situation and not be?"
Q. Dr. Zink has said that the role of Alaska DHSS is to “advise the governor” and that neither she nor DHSS has the authority to issue a mandate. Any thoughts?
"So then advise the governor. Put your advice in writing. If the governor is unwilling to respond to the medically-sound advice, call a press conference, publicly share your thoughts, and resign as Chief Medical Officer. Be a hero, speak truth to power, or just keep typing up numbers."
Q. Would you like her to state publicly whether or not she has recommended to the governor the need for a statewide mask mandate?
"Absolutely, but her job is to save lives, above all else. A mask mandate is an essential piece of messaging to get these cases down. It's not enough to recommend it, she has to call for it. She has to use her considerable authority to push the issue. We need champions."
In an age where we have politicized a global pandemic, calling for a statewide mask mandate may not be something Dr. Zink is able or willing to do, although her messaging on mask-wearing, social distancing and other mitigation strategies has been consistent and loud enough for many Alaskans to both hear and heed.
One thing is certain in these uncertain times, Alaskans are starved for leadership and looking around...find little of it.