JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has said it allocated $3.2 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to hire two public relations firms based in Anchorage to help with coronavirus communications across the state.
Blueprint Alaska LLC was first contracted in June and is expected to work until April, and Brilliant Media Strategies was first contracted in October and is expected to work through June, Alaska’s News Source reported Thursday.
Both contracts were made available to the media outlet through a public records request. A third company, Northwest Strategies, was also hired but that contract was not immediately made available, the station said.
Blueprint Alaska was initially awarded a two-month, $440,000 contract approved by department communications director Clinton Bennett and deputy commissioner Sana Efird through emergency procedures that allowed the firm to bypass the normal competitive bidding process.
Blueprint Alaska President Sarah Erkmann Ward signed off on the contract with the state. She said she does not comment on contracts where she is the contractor and deferred further questions to the health department.
The contract has since been extended three times and the firm can be paid up to $1 million for its services, department officials said.
Elizabeth Manning, department communications manager, said those services include messaging on social media, mailing information to residents and setting up events related to safety guidelines and vaccine distribution.
“There was a time earlier in the pandemic when we were often asked by members of the public if we could do more public messaging,” Manning said. “Having these contractors has really helped fill those gaps in messaging.”
Brilliant Media was awarded a second contract for $2.2 million from October to June through a formal bidding process that occurred in August. It can be extended for another year, but there is no set budget for an extension.
The firm was hired in part to create and place radio and television advertisements related to COVID-19.
Brilliant Media President Debra Reinwand declined to answer questions about the contract and referred questions to Bennett.
State health departments in Oklahoma, Hawaii and Connecticut have also paid public relations firms to help with communications work during the pandemic, providing information on cases and deaths, public health orders and vaccinations.
The Alaska health department reported 476 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine deaths in the state on Friday. Health officials have reported more than 46,000 cases and more than 200 deaths since the pandemic began in March.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.