Alaskans await vital records as the state health department comes back online after a cyber attack

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It’s been three months since a cyber attack crippled the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ online systems. And for Alaskans in need of vital records – things like birth, death, and marriage certificates – that has put things on hold.


Stephanie Bucheli and her newborn son. (Courtesy photo of the family)

Stephanie Bucheli’s second son was born at home in July. When her husband picked up the birth certificate, he was told it could take up to two months.

Bucheli and her family needed the birth certificate to get their son a passport. Her entire family lives in Peru, and her mother is dying to meet her second grandson while he is a baby. She only met Bucheli’s firstborn when he was nearly four.

“But you know, it’s been a month and I haven’t got anything. And I got a bit scared, ”said Bucheli.

The paperwork takes so long because the state has to fill out orders for things like birth certificates and marriage certificates by hand. The May cyber attack destroyed the electronic vital signs recording system that made the process as simple as the few clicks it takes to search and print.

Fortunately, Bucheli lives in Juneau, which has a state archive. She could go in and ask someone to handle the paperwork on site. She said it took about 40 minutes. But that’s not an option for everyone in the country.

The vault at the Juneau Statistics Office. (Courtesy photo by Rebecca Topol)

“I welcomed Vital Records in 1975,” said Rebecca Topol, who leads Health Analysis and Life Data.

Topol says that instead of searching this electronic database, their employees must search a literal vault of all government bonds.

“You know how the library archives have a large safe, we have one here for the original 19th century records,” she said.

The vault is in Juneau. So if someone was looking for a record elsewhere, the Juneau staff probably had to look for it.

The electronic system was back up a few weeks ago, but Topol says their team is still lagging behind.

“So we literally have stacks of mail that haven’t gone through all of them. They process them in the order in which they were received. So the newest ones would basically get to the bottom of it, ”said Topol.

There are still too many backups to turn the online ordering system back on.

The state has approved overtime and added staff to get the job done, but Topol estimates it could take months for services to return to normal.

People like Bucheli, who can go to the office, have the chance to get their documents faster. But anyway, when she got her son’s passport, she was told there was a slowdown there too – federal officials said COVID-19 was responsible for that delay. So she’s still waiting. And she said she can’t help but wonder …

“If I had got the verification in a day or so – not a month, then I wouldn’t have this problem,” said Bucheli.

There are still about two months before their trip. Anything could happen.


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