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Alaska News Nightly: Friday, October 23, 2020

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Incumbent Rep. Don Young debating Congressional candidate Alyse Galvin for Alaska’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, on October 22 at Debate for the State. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Stories are posted on the statewide news page. You can subscribe to Alaska Public Media’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @AKPublicNews

Friday on Alaska News Nightly:

Candidates running to represent Alaska in Washington, D.C. begin their last few rounds of debate. And, the surge of coronavirus cases in Alaska is reaching record highs. Plus, how will Anchorage’s new acting mayor lead Alaska’s biggest city?

Reports tonight from:

  • Liz Ruskin, Tegan Hanlon, Kavitha George, Nat Herz in Anchorage
  • Greg Kim and Anna Rose MacArthur in Bethel
  • Dan Bross in Fairbanks
  • Erin McKinstry in Sitka
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Alaska News Nightly: Friday, November 20, 2020

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Tastee-Freez owner Rich Owens poses outside of his restaurant just before opening for the day on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Stories are posted on the statewide news page. You can subscribe to Alaska Public Media’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @AKPublicNews

Friday on Alaska News Nightly:

Public records suggest an Alaska agency has been collaborating with the Pebble Mine on its permit application. And, hard-hit Anchorage restaurants prepare for more restrictions as case counts soar. Plus, Anchorage health officials say contact tracing has become too difficult.

Reports tonight from:

  • Liz Ruskin in Washington D.C.
  • Andrew Kitchenman and Rashah McChesney in Juneau
  • Kavitha George and Lex Treinen in Anchorage
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November 22, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

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November 22, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

This is the most recent statewide weather briefing from the National Weather Service Anchorage’s TV Desk.

Alaska Weather is broadcast each night on Anchorage’s KAKM Channel 7, Alaska Public and the Alaska Rural Communication System.

This multimedia briefing does not take the place of your official National Weather Service products. For the latest weather observations, advisories, watches and warnings for Alaska, head to http://www.arh.noaa.gov.

For questions or comments, please email: nws.ar.tvweather ( at ) noaa.gov

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Alaska’s geography poses unique challenge in getting COVID-19 vaccine, treatments to rural areas

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A health care provider places a band-aid on the injection site of a patient who just received a flu vaccine. (Lauren Bishop/CDC)

New COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are on the horizon nationwide, and for Alaska.

The two leading COVID-19 vaccines could hit the state next month. And monoclonal antibody infusions — a treatment received by President Donald Trump when he was hospitalized with COVID-19 — have already arrived in small numbers.

But health-care providers face unique challenges in distributing those medicines across Alaska, with its hundreds of communities that lack road access and hospitals.

The antibody treatments have been shown to reduce hospitalizations among at-risk patients. But they’re given through an IV and similar drugs can set off rashes or even anaphylactic shock, so they’re typically delivered in treatment centers where patients can be monitored and access higher levels of care if needed — very different environments than the remote clinics in many Alaska villages.

Read full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic from Alaska Public Media

One of the leading vaccines, meanwhile — the one produced by Pfizer — has to be stored at minus 95 F, and once it’s thawed, it lasts just five days in a refrigerator. That timeline could prove hard to meet for certain rural Alaska villages that are only accessible by air and can face weather-related delays during the winter.

“There’s places on the coast when the weather goes down for a week, and there’s no planes, there’s no medevacs of any kind,” said Dan Winkelman, chief executive of Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., a tribal health-care provider that covers some four-dozen villages in Southwest Alaska. “We need to be smart about this.”

Alaska Native people are already seeing disproportionate rates of infection with COVID-19. And assuring equal access to the vaccines and antibodies will require disproportionate investment in rural Alaska distribution, said Dr. Bob Onders, administrator of the Alaska Native Medical Center.

BobOnders
Dr. Bob Onders (ANTHC)

“We can’t have a neurosurgeon in every village clinic — that’s not reasonable,” Onders said. “But there are things like this where I think we need to look hard at: How can we do it in the widespread way and the most equitable way?”

State and federal health officials and tribal health care providers are already preparing for the arrival of vaccines and drafting plans to distribute and administer them.

State officials say tribal providers already have a strong network for distributing other types of vaccines that will serve as a kind of template for COVID-19. There’s also a second leading version of the COVID-19 vaccine, from Moderna, that has a longer shelf life and can be stored at warmer temperatures.

“We just did a practice run with all tribal communities and locations of getting flu vaccine out there,” said Matt Bobo, the manager of Alaska’s immunization program. “We do that every year, so this isn’t different than that.”

Tribal providers say they’re collaborating with the state but still in the planning phases for vaccine distribution.

Winkelman, from YKHC, said he has between 600 and 1,000 employees that could be among the first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, based on plans to prioritize early supplies for health care workers.

If his organization can get access to the Moderna vaccine, with its longer shelf-life and warmer storage temperature, YKHC’s existing infrastructure should be adequate, he said.

But if it needs to distribute Pfizer’s version, with its super-cold storage requirements and five-day shelf-life, “we’re going to need help,” he said — potentially from National Guard aircraft and hangars.

Commercial airlines’ facilities in rural Alaska are limited, Winkelman said, and the benefit of using publicly-owned infrastructure is that health-care providers could access it at any time of day.

Bobo, the state’s immunization manager, didn’t respond to a follow-up question about whether that idea was under consideration. But Winkelman said he’s confident that the logistics can ultimately be sorted out.

“I think it’s going to take some brainstorming — quite honestly, that’s the easy part,” he said. “It’s just getting the vaccine — that’s what we need. We need it now.”

The first monoclonal antibody treatment, meanwhile, was just approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month.

The drug is still in extremely limited supply, and the state’s initial grant from the federal government was just 240 doses, said Coleman Cutchins, a pharmacist with the state health department.

But Eli Lilly, the company that makes the drug, says that enough of the antibody treatment for 1 million people will be available by the end of the year. And the FDA says that in clinical trials, it has reduced COVID-19-related hospitalizations or emergency room visits for patients at high-risk of severe disease.

Other antibody treatments are “notorious” for causing reactions like rashes and even anaphylactic shock, Cutchins said, which is why they’re generally delivered at an “infusion center” or another type of facility that’s close to a hospital or emergency responders.

He said there will likely be good access to the new antibody treatments even in Alaska’s smaller hospitals in rural hub communities — possibly better than in urban hospitals, because they handle fewer patients.

“But in terms of one or two degrees away from that, at this point, we don’t have a good enough understanding of the safety profile to say that we can give them in a home or in a clinic,” Cutchinss said. “Time will only tell.”

Initial, anecdotal reports suggest that patients receiving the antibody treatment have fared well, Cutchins said.

And tribal health care providers do administer other types of IV infusions at clinics across the state, said Onders, the Alaska Native Medical Center administrator.

He said it makes sense to try to provide the antibody treatment “as close to home as possible,” since the data indicate that the drugs only work early in the progression of COVID-19, before a patient needs hospitalization.

So far, Onders said, tribal providers have been invited to participate in planning around distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.

And he said it appears that the state is trying to ensure even access to vaccines and drugs between urban and rural Alaska — though making sure that happens “will take effort,” Onders added.

“The easy route is to say, ‘The road system gets early vaccines, and rural Alaska waits for the others,’” he said. “And that’s not acceptable.”

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Unpacking the gift and power of women in the Alaska community

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The YWCA of Alaska recently named its 31st cohort of Women of Achievement. On this edition of Hometown Alaska, we’ll learn more about the mission and priorities of this organization as it has thrived through three decades. And, we’ll meet and speak with several Women of Achievement to learn their story and hear their wisdom.

As always, your questions and comments are welcome. Join us!

HOST: Kathleen McCoy

GUEST:

  • Theresa Lyons, CEO of YWCA Alaska
  • Sharon Richards, 1988 co-founder and first executive director YWCA
  • Several Women of Achievement, past and current

LINKS:

PARTICIPATE:

  • Call 550-8433 (Anchorage) or 1-888-353-5752 (statewide) during the live broadcast (2:00 – 3:00pm)
  • Send e-mail to hometown@alaskapublic.org before, during or after the live broadcast (e-mails may be read on air)
  • Post your comment or question below (comments may be read on air
  • LIVE: Monday, November 23, 2020 at 2:00 p.m
  • RE-AIR: Monday, November 23, 2020 at 8:00 p.m.
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November 21, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

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November 21, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

This is the most recent statewide weather briefing from the National Weather Service Anchorage’s TV Desk.

Alaska Weather is broadcast each night on Anchorage’s KAKM Channel 7, Alaska Public and the Alaska Rural Communication System.

This multimedia briefing does not take the place of your official National Weather Service products. For the latest weather observations, advisories, watches and warnings for Alaska, head to http://www.arh.noaa.gov.

For questions or comments, please email: nws.ar.tvweather ( at ) noaa.gov

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November 20, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

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November 20, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

This is the most recent statewide weather briefing from the National Weather Service Anchorage’s TV Desk.

Alaska Weather is broadcast each night on Anchorage’s KAKM Channel 7, Alaska Public and the Alaska Rural Communication System.

This multimedia briefing does not take the place of your official National Weather Service products. For the latest weather observations, advisories, watches and warnings for Alaska, head to http://www.arh.noaa.gov.

For questions or comments, please email: nws.ar.tvweather ( at ) noaa.gov

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Anchorage health officials plead for residents’ help in contact tracing

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SEARHC personnel test a colleague for COVID-19 at the employee screening tent behind the hospital on April 28, 2020. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

Anchorage health officials say they’ve seen a dramatic drop in the ability of contact tracers to reach residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.  

At a press conference Friday, officials said they’re asking for help from residents who test positive. They want Alaskans to start filling in for the busy contact tracers, who work with infected people to identify others that may have been exposed to the disease.

“We want you to educate yourself and immediately take action,” said Wendy Williams, a public health nurse with the Anchorage Health Department.

That means residents should identify their own close contacts to notify them of their exposure and push them to resources on AHD’s website. 

A 31% increase in cases in Anchorage over the last week, combined with the noncooperation of some residents, has significantly reduced the proportion of people that the city can contact.

While the department has been contacting about the same number of people each week, the percentage of COVID-positive residents they’ve been able to reach has dropped. Two weeks ago they were able to contact 80% of cases; last week, they were only able to contact 54%.

Despite a dedicated team of public health nurses, the case overload is draining morale, Williams said. She said that like other nurses, she’s had to make big sacrifices to try to stay on top of cases. 

“For myself personally, not being able to come home and make dinner for my children and sit down and enjoy a family meal has been the most difficult,” she said, holding back tears, “And what I can say is that we all make sacrifices — we make them in our daily lives. But this is the time, more than ever, where if the only sacrifice we make is to wear a mask, social distance and stay home when we’re sick, I would encourage you to do so.”

Officials are urging residents who may have been exposed to COVID to get tested at the city’s free testing clinics.

RELATED: Anchorage opens pop-up COVID-19 testing sites, encourages everyone to get tested

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Tlingit artist from Juneau designs stamp for US Postal Service

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A black Tlingit designed eagle
The new USPS stamp designed by Tlingit artist Rico Lanáat’ Worl

The artwork of a Tlingit artist from Juneau will be featured on a new postage stamp set for distribution next year.

Rico Lanáat’ Worl is the founder of Trickster Company, a design shop based in Juneau that incorporates traditional Northwest Coast Art into everything from T-shirts and stickers, to skateboard decks and basketballs.

He said that an art director with the United States Postal Service named Antonio Alcala called him up one day.

“He had apparently discovered some of Trickster Company’s artwork at the National Museum of the American Indian’s giftshop in D.C. That’s sort of where our discussion began about making this design happen,” Worl said.

Worl decided to go with a scene from the traditional story of Raven setting free the sun, moon and stars for his design. He said he kept a national audience in mind.

“You know, there are so many depictions of Raven and the box of daylight story,” Worl said. “It almost felt a little bit silly to do it again, but I felt like it was an important story that gives a gateway for people to learn about Tlingit culture.”

His design depicts Raven escaping through the chimney as he is transforming back into human form. It’s an exciting and chaotic scene. There are stars stuck in his feathers and the sun is in his mouth.

Worl said he believes that the decision to include his artwork on a stamp is part of a wider movement for better representation of Native stories.

“I think the USPS is sort of in line with everyone else trying to figure out how to enable Indigenous people to tell their own stories. It’s just an honor to be able to be a part of that and to represent,” Worl said.

According to Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Postal Service had planned to unveil the stamp at Celebration 2020, but the event was canceled because of the pandemic. SHI is working with the agency to hold a release ceremony next year.

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November 19, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

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November 19, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

This is the most recent statewide weather briefing from the National Weather Service Anchorage’s TV Desk.

Alaska Weather is broadcast each night on Anchorage’s KAKM Channel 7, Alaska Public and the Alaska Rural Communication System.

This multimedia briefing does not take the place of your official National Weather Service products. For the latest weather observations, advisories, watches and warnings for Alaska, head to http://www.arh.noaa.gov.

For questions or comments, please email: nws.ar.tvweather ( at ) noaa.gov

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Soldotna elder care facility gets hit with COVID-19

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The Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Sixteen residents have tested positive for the coronavirus at Heritage Place, the eldercare facility operated by Central Peninsula Hospital. That’s over 30% of the facility’s 52 residents.

Meanwhile, the hospital is working with a diminished number of staff members and opening up surge spaces to accommodate the influx in cases coming through its doors.

Heritage Place reported its first cases of COVID-19 in late October when three staff members tested positive for the virus. On Nov. 8, three residents and an additional staff member also received positive results.

The facility’s staff and residents are being tested every few days. The most recent round came up yesterday with nine positives. Those tests were taken late last week.

None of the 16 residents who tested positive are hospitalized as of now, said Central Peninsula Hospital Director of External Affairs Bruce Richards.

Six Heritage Place staff members have also tested positive for the virus.

Nursing homes around the state have been linked to a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19-related deaths. Though 6% of cases nationally have been linked to nursing facilities, they’re associated with 38% of deaths, according to an Oct. 30 New York Times report.

The most recent surge in positive cases inside Heritage Place tracks with the timeline the virus has taken in other facilities around the state. Surges in cases have tended to follow a week after initial outbreaks.

The isolated staff at Heritage Place are among the 74 members across the hospital system who are currently unable to report to work because of exposure to the coronavirus. Short staffing is an ongoing problem at hospitals around the state as hospital staff are increasingly coming into contact with the virus.

Richards said around half of those Central Peninsula Hospital staff members will finish out their quarantines and be cleared to come back to work in the next three days.

Central Peninsula Hospital opened a surge space to handle an influx of patients this week. Located in the hospital’s former obstetrics space, it provides an additional nine beds on top of the hospital’s existing 49. 

The hospital is using the surge space primarily for patients with milder illnesses, while patients who are positive for COVID-19 are sent to the regular space. As of yesterday, all but one hospital bed in the surge space were filled. Some beds have opened on the regular floor.

Richards said the hospital has a surge plan in place and will activate different sections of the hospital as needed. He said the facility currently has a sufficient amount of PPE to handle the cases in its doors.

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‘Worked better than I expected’: Tok’s electric bus passes first cold-weather test.

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A front view of a yellow school bus
The Tok electric bus looks like any other bus from the outside (Image from YouTube)

The eastern Interior town of Tok has Alaska’s first and only electric-powered school bus. The vehicle has in use since mid-October, and it was put to the test earlier this month, when it transported students without any problem after the temperature had dropped to 35 below.

Gerald “Stretch” Blackard bought the electric bus earlier this year with a nearly $400,000 state grant and $50,000 of his own money that he used to buy a solar-powered battery-recharging system. All because he wanted to find out whether electric vehicles and renewable energy can be harnessed to work in a cold climate, like Tok’s.

“For me, the interest is in the technology and what it can produce,” he said in an interview last week. “And I like being one that can help in the process of making things more available to other places.”

Blackard and his wife, Sara, own and operate Tok Transportation, which buses students to four area schools. He says he’d been thinking about electric-powered buses for a couple of years before he heard about an Alaska Energy Authority program intended to encourage school districts to invest in buses that produce fewer emissions.

The AEA program is funded by Alaska’s share of a settlement by Germany-based Volkswagen after company officials admitted they falsified its vehicles’ emissions ratings.

Seven districts around the state that got funding through the program bought cleaner-burning diesel-powered buses. The eighth, Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District, used its share to invest in an even cleaner technology.  

“This is the first electric school bus in Alaska,” he said, “and it’s also in one of the coldest climates.”

So, to Blackard, it seemed like the perfect place to test electric-vehicle technology. And school district officials were on board with the idea, because as Superintendent Scott MacManus says, the bus would complement the district’s other renewable-energy projects – like the Tok School’s biomass-fueled heat and power plant.

“Having the first electric bus in Alaska is really exciting, and it fits right in with what Tok and the Alaska Gateway School District have been doing with alternative energy,” MacManus said. “And, y’know, it’s the direction that the world needs to be moving in.”

But Blackard says officials with the Alaska Energy Authority initially were reluctant to go along with his proposal because they said he’d be recharging the bus with power from the local utility, which generates electricity with diesel-fired generators.

“The concern was that I was going to be swapping one diesel-burner for another diesel-burner,” he said. “So, as part of the grant, they required me to do something to offset that part of it. So that’s where the solar came in.”

Blackard says the solar-powered battery charger worked pretty well last month, producing most of the power needed to recharge the bus’s batteries. But this month, as the days grew shorter and the sun was barely clearing the horizon, he relied increasingly on the local grid to recharge.

“This time of year, we don’t get much solar,” he said.

The solution, Blackard says, is to set up a bank of batteries to store the solar energy collected during the day, then use it to recharge the bus’s batteries. He plans to invest in that system in the coming year.

His goal this year is focus on how well the bus functions in cold weather. He says so far it’s doing pretty well, based on its performance during a cold snap earlier this month.
“We had a couple of days, one that was 30 below, one that was 35 below, where we ran the bus,” he said, “and it worked better than I expected.”

Blackard says that’s because he was able to solve the problem that causes electric-vehicle batteries to drain quickly in cold climates, which is that they discharge so much current to keep the vehicle warm that it severely limits the amount left over to power its motor. So he insulated the battery compartment and parks the bus in a warm garage before and after it’s operated

He says it didn’t have a problem on the 35-mile run to and from Tok School. And it kept the temperature inside the bus at or above 45 degrees, as the state requires.

“It was a lot warmer than our old buses!” he said.

Blackard says he had one of those older diesel-powered buses ready to go if the electric bus had problems. But because it ran smoothly, the old diesel remained parked at the bus barn – and it didn’t emit even a whiff of exhaust.

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ConocoPhillips Alaska plans to restart drilling on the North Slope this year

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A unit at the edge of ConocoPhillips’ Kuparuk oil field, on Alaska’s North Slope. (Rachel Waldholz/Alaska Public Media)

Next year’s budget hasn’t been approved yet, but ConocoPhillips Alaska is planning to restart some of its drilling projects on the North Slope. 

The company’s president, Joe Marushack, outlined plans at the annual Resource Development Council conference on Wednesday in Anchorage.  Marushack said by the end of this year, the company plans to restart some drilling on the North Slope. 

And, it plans to build up operations next year. 

“By the end of 2021, there will be four rigs running between [Great Mooses Tooth] 2, Alpine and Kuparuk. Each rig normally employees about 100 people and each of those jobs support multiple jobs throughout the state economy,” he said.

It has been a challenging year for the oil industry.

Marushack said 2020 was supposed to be the company’s largest exploration and winter construction season ever. 

“We came into the year very excited. It was also slated to be a big drilling year with the startup of the Doyon extended reach drilling rigs at Kuparuk and robust drilling programs in the core fields of Alpine, Prudhoe and Kuparuk,” he said.

As COVID-19 spread, the company saw a steep drop in demand, followed by a collapse of oil prices. First, it suspended development in 2020 and then cut production from the North Slope. 

Thousands of workers left the North Slope as the company tried to reduce the risk of a large outbreak of the virus. Marushack said they worried it could overwhelm health facilities there. The company also asked staff in its Anchorage offices to work from home. 

Now, Marushack said that for the first time since its fields were brought online, Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk River and Alpine have no rigs running in them.  But, the plan is to have rigs working on two of those fields by the end of 2021. 

One other thing, while the company is planning to continue operating next year — Marushack isn’t. After more than 30 years with ConocoPhillips, he said he’s retiring in January. 

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Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, November 17, 2020

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two assembly members at the Anchorage assembly meeting
Assembly chair Felix Rivera and Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, where Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt announced Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Stories are posted on the statewide news page. You can subscribe to Alaska Public Media’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @AKPublicNews

Tuesday on Alaska News Nightly:

Governor Dunleavy issues several health orders under a new disaster declaration. And, a Sitka science teacher wins one of the highest honors in her field by featuring traditional knowledge. Plus, the Anchorage Assembly extends the city’s emergency declaration.

Reports tonight from:

  • Andrew Kitchenman and Matt Miller in Juneau
  • Kavitha George in Anchorage
  • Eric Stone in Ketchikan
  • Henry Leasia in Haines
  • Katherine Rose in Sitka
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November 18, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

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November 18, 2020 Alaska Weather Daily Briefing

This is the most recent statewide weather briefing from the National Weather Service Anchorage’s TV Desk.

Alaska Weather is broadcast each night on Anchorage’s KAKM Channel 7, Alaska Public and the Alaska Rural Communication System.

This multimedia briefing does not take the place of your official National Weather Service products. For the latest weather observations, advisories, watches and warnings for Alaska, head to http://www.arh.noaa.gov.

For questions or comments, please email: nws.ar.tvweather ( at ) noaa.gov

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Conservation groups sue US to halt oil project in Alaska

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A polar bear in Arctic Alaska. (Photo Credit: Terry Debruyne/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Conservation groups are suing the Trump administration to halt the approval of a development plan for a ConocoPhillips oil project in Alaska, arguing that officials underestimated the plan’s harm to local wildlife.

The groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department, under which the agencies fall.

Groups involved in the lawsuit include the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.

They also claim the federal land bureau failed to provide a plan to mitigate harm to Arctic communities and public health, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska involves multiple drill sites, a processing facility and gravel roads and pipelines. The Trump administration approved the plan in October.

The Bureau of Land Management said the project could produce up to 160,000 oil barrels daily, or 600 million barrels over 30 years and would help boost state revenue in Alaska.

The agency in a statement Wednesday said it stands by its environmental analysis for the development.

“Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on an extensive process involving input from BLM career subject matter experts and the public. The BLM continues to implement its multiple-use mission and safely and responsibly develop its natural resources,” the agency said.

ConocoPhillips has said production could start by the mid-2020s.

Natalie Lowman, a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips Alaska, told The Associated Press that the company does not comment on ongoing litigation. The conservation groups do not name ConocoPhillips as a defendant in their lawsuit.

Conservation groups said the project is a threat to the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, a complex in the 36,000 square-mile reserve that supports birds and caribou. The groups said the oil project could negatively affect polar bears.

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St. Paul Island has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but the community isn’t letting down its guard

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Sts. Peter and Paul Church on St. Paul Island. (Courtesy of Ian Dickson/KTOO)

On St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs, the school year started with roughly 25% of students doing home-based education even though the school was open to students.

As the year has progressed, most of those students have returned. But as in many remote areas in Alaska, St. Paul remains on high alert because the effects of returning to distance-based education in the small community of just 397 people could be particularly devastating.

Read more stories about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting rural Alaska

“Our community is very close,” said St. Paul teacher Melissa Zacharof. “We have lots of community events. And generally, lots of ways to interact with each other on a regular basis. For example, we have a community art center. We’d have pottery classes and paint nights. We have regular gatherings, whether it’s for a meeting, or somebody’s wedding, or another important family event — things like that. They have all pretty much had to shut down.”

Zacharof teaches sixth through twelfth-grade humanities in St. Paul and is working with 23 students this year. There are about 50 school-aged children on the island. According to Zacharof, the school’s always been a very welcoming place. But since the pandemic began, that hasn’t been quite the same.

“There’s a plexiglas barrier in front of our secretary,” described Zacharof. “Out front, there are paraprofessionals and maintenance directors ushering kids inside and taking their temperatures one at a time. There aren’t kids in the hallway. There aren’t kids in the gym.”

At first glance, the image Zacharof depicted doesn’t seem much different from what’s happening at other schools that also reopened to students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But in such a remote community, disruptions of daily social interactions can be especially devastating.

But Zacharof said when the city restricted access to social gatherings and the school closed last March due to the pandemic, it wasn’t the loss of the events or places so much that impacted the community.

“Those kinds of things have been — I don’t want to say taken away  — it’s not that,” reflected Zacharof. “It’s just that that access that we have to each other, that we’re used to, has definitely changed.”

Most of the students in the Pribilof School District go to school in St. Paul. And classes are generally made up of about a dozen kids each. There are also about six students at the school on nearby St. George Island, which is a correspondence school of St. Paul.

Because St. George’s population is so small and the island is so isolated, the majority of the students’ work is done virtually — often through online learning systems such as Acellus — and monitored by a single staff member.

Pribilof School District Superintendent John Bruce said both communities are working to keep the kids safe and that the district has stepped down to four days of classes per week on St. Paul to allow extra cleaning this semester. And he said the island’s remote location has been a blessing so far.

“We haven’t had COVID up here yet,” said Bruce. “The downside to [the precautions] is for the kids — they’ve done very well, but they’re not getting a full day’s education.”

With just six teachers on the island, he said the school has had to begin alternating students’ schedules to lower class sizes. Half of the students attend their classes in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon. And that leaves a lot more time with kids at home.

Jill Fratis, a teacher, parent and general manager of the local radio station, said the shortened school day has been challenging.

“Being a working parent and trying to balance and juggle the two, I’m not gonna lie, it’s been really difficult,” said Fratis. “And trying so hard to make sure that I am there fully — in all aspects of my life — is a learning process, but one day at a time is all I’ve got to say.”

As the community has learned to adjust to the shifting schedules, she said she’s been extremely grateful for everyone’s flexibility, and especially for the school district’s commitment to keeping students, staff and families safe.

Fratis’ enthusiastic praise for the city and district for working so hard to keep the students in school — even for just half a day — shows how meaningful in-person learning and interaction are to her.

She said that interaction is also important for the island as a whole, so much so that she described last spring’s transition to purely home-based learning as a “culture shock” for the community.

“Everyone knows each other by first, middle and last names, and everyone’s a part of each other’s lives every single day,” said Fratis. “And then having to go from that to distance learning — just having the kids at home by themselves, not being able to have that connection, that in-person physical connection with your classmates and your teacher — it was something that took them a really long time to get used to.”

St. Paul Island is currently in phase three of its strategic reentry plan. Under that plan, all non-essential travel is banned, people returning to the island are required to quarantine for two weeks and strict social distancing is required in public to protect everyone.

“There are multiple generations here — grandparents, kids and grandchildren on the island,” said Fratis. “And we are the largest population of Unangan people in the world. And we want to protect that. It’s very sacred to us. And I think that the community is doing an amazing job.”

While to some those restrictions may seem harsh for a community with no confirmed cases of COVID-19, Fratis said the island and its community are worth protecting.

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