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Two new COVID-19 deaths tied to rural Alaska

Inbound passenger Kelly Brose, far right, stops outside the COVID-19 testing site to fill out paperwork before completing her virus test at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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A person who tested positive for COVID-19 in Southwest Alaska died from complications of the disease after being transferred to an Anchorage hospital over the weekend, tribal health officials said.

The report came a day after a separate death involving a 67-year-old man from Fort Yukon who died at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital with coronavirus. The Fort Yukon city manager on Monday confirmed the death of a person from the Interior village, which is at the center of an ongoing outbreak. The man was transferred to the Fairbanks hospital before his death, according to city manager Andrew Firmin.

He had pre-existing medical conditions, according to state health officials.

The death of a rural Alaska resident heightens community concerns about the spread of the virus in small isolated villages and communities around the state. Tribal and city officials in March enacted aggressive restrictions to keep out COVID-19 given limited health-care resources in remote locations.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta patient tested positive in Bethel earlier and was in self-isolation and under daily monitoring when the individual’s symptoms worsened, according to a statement Monday from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. The person is not a resident of the region, the health corporation reported.

The patient arrived at the YKHC emergency room over the weekend and was transported to Anchorage for advanced care, health corporation officials wrote.

“It is with deep sadness that YKHC reports the individual died from complications related to COVID-19 while in Anchorage,” they said.

Twenty-one Alaskans have died with the virus since the first confirmed cases began appearing in Alaska in March, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. It didn’t appear the Yukon-Kuskokwim death was reflected in those statistics.

Alaska is in the midst of a coronavirus surge with frequent new daily highs including on Sunday, when there were 231 new cases reported by the state, though a test result backlog was partly responsible.

Several large outbreaks in seafood industry workers account for about 300 of the state’s recent cases after two plants reported additional confirmed positives on Monday.

An ongoing outbreak at the Copper River Seafoods Anchorage processing plant as of Monday involved 76 out of 135 total employees, according to a municipal health department spokesman. Twelve employees had pending test results and nine still needed to be tested.

OBI Seafoods in Seward reported 45 more positive cases over the weekend in addition to 98 reported last week, according to the City of Seward. The company employs about 250 in that facility and said Friday it planned to test employees with negative results every three days until no additional positive cases surfaced.

Forty-three of the 45 workers were transported to Anchorage, where co-workers who already tested positive are in isolation. Two local employees have remained in Seward along with nine others from the prior round for isolation and treatment under company-provided medical care, the city said.

Another round of testing was conducted Monday.

All told, more than two-thirds of the Alaska’s total coronavirus cases are considered “active” and potentially infectious now, or 2,235 out of a total of 3,206 cases since the pandemic began in March.

The state on Monday reported 104 new COVID-19 infections around Alaska, including 98 in residents and 6 in nonresidents. There have been 116 people hospitalized with the virus since March. There were 36 people hospitalized with the virus as of Monday’s report.

In Anchorage, where many of the state’s sickest patients are treated, hospitals experienced an almost 60% increase in COVID-19 patients last week: 14 people were hospitalized with the virus last Monday and 22 last Friday, according to a municipal dashboard. There were 25 coronavirus patients in Anchorage Monday, three of them on ventilators.

Sixty-four of the new infections reported Monday were in Anchorage residents, including 1 in Chugiak and 3 in Eagle River. The rest of the infections were reported in other communities: 1 in Homer, 2 in Kenai, and 1 in Soldotna; 1 in Cordova and 1 in a smaller community in the Valdez-Cordova Census Area; 3 in Fairbanks; 4 in Palmer, 3 in Wasilla, 1 in Willow; 3 in Utqiagvik; 2 in Kotzebue and 3 in smaller communities in the Northwest Arctic Borough; 3 in Juneau; 1 in Craig; 2 in Sitka; 1 smaller community in the Yakutat Hoonah-Angoon areas; 1 in Unalaska; and 1 listed as other.

The nonresident cases were 1 in a seafood worker in Anchorage; 1 unknown sector in Ketchikan Gateway Borough; and four in an unknown industry.

Spiking COVID-19 case counts in cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks are now being followed by clusters in smaller, outlying communities experiencing a sudden rise in case counts this month.

The death in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region prompted a stern warning from the tribal health corporation that while the state relaxed health mandates in May, “as YKHC has been stating for several weeks, the pandemic and the public health risks it poses is not over.”

There are no vaccines and limited medical treatments available at this point, officials said. “Since we can never know when a COVID-19 will result in serious illness or death, we urge all YK Delta residents to remain vigilant and practice all known protective measures against COVID-19.”

Those include avoiding non-essential travel; getting tested upon arrival at airports in Bethel, St. Mary’s and Aniak when coming from outside the region; practicing regular hand washing; maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from non-household members; wearing a mask in public; and frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces in the home.

Fort Yukon has experienced a sudden cluster of infections in the past few weeks, community leaders say. They point to increased travel in and out of the community as well as social gatherings like funerals and people ignoring protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing.

There are 21 confirmed cases in the village, the same number as last week, local officials say.

The state emergency operations center, Tanana Chiefs Conference and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium are working together to add an extra testing machine and two staff to begin mass testing in the community on Tuesday, Firmin said. The organizations also hope to provide two more EMTs to the village to relieve the daily load on local health workers.

It’s been six months since the village began trying to keep out the virus, said Nancy James, 1st Chief for the Gwichyaa Gwich’in Tribal Council. James declined to provide any specific information about the man who died on Sunday out of respect for his family members.

She credited the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments as well as the state, city, tribe and “leaders behind the scenes” for working together in the effort to stop further spread of coronavirus.

“It’s really imperative,” James said. “That’s the only way we can fight it, as a team and as a tribe.”

Of the 98 Alaska residents whose cases were reported Monday, 44 are male and 54 are female, according to state health data. Seven are under the age of 10; 12 are between 10 and 19; 25 are in their 20s; 18 are in their 30s; nine are in their 40s; 13 are in their 50s; 10 are in their 60s; two are in their 70s; and two are in their 80s.

The state COVID-19 dashboard had no testing lab updates Monday due to an issue with importing electronic data Sunday, health officials said. Alaska has conducted 207,264 tests with a 3-day average percentage of daily positives of 1.91%.

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