A new coronavirus death this week in a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta resident is adding fuel to regional calls for stricter testing protocols to prevent the transfer of the virus from urban hot spots like Anchorage.
About a dozen people tested positive in Bethel in the past week, including five state court and jail workers — a marked increase given 54 total cases confirmed in the region between March and mid-August.
Officials at the regional health agency, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. are imploring local employers — including the state of Alaska — to start testing all workers coming into Bethel and surrounding villages.
Health officials last month also asked Bethel’s city council to mandate airport testing for all incoming travelers and to presented a draft ordinance to the city attorney modeled after the state air travel mandate that requires either proof of a negative test, a test at the airport, or a promise to quarantine for 14 days.
“There’s a reason we’re taking this so seriously,” Dan Winkelman, YKHC president and CEO, said Thursday. “Last night we had our second death of a resident of the Y-K Delta from COVID. This is a very serious disease.”
The health organization reported the death of a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta resident in their 50s on Thursday. The person died at the hospital in Bethel of complications due to COVID-19, officials say. The fatality marks the second for the region; a person who wasn’t a resident tested positive there in July and died after being transferred to Anchorage for medical care.
‘They bring the virus back’
Bethel, the largest rural hub community in Alaska with 6,500 residents, serves as regional center for more than 50 smaller villages off the road system across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Like other remote places in Alaska, rising coronavirus counts are raising concerns that a surge in COVID-19 patients could overwhelm health care capacity, especially with schools reopening and flu season coming.
There is no ICU at Bethel’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital. People who test positive when they arrive in Bethel or are waiting on results have few housing options for quarantine or isolation. Just two of 10 rooms set aside for positive or pending COVID-19 cases were open at a hotel in town, YKHC officials say.
The Alaska Airlines flight that comes in once a day can bring 80 people, according to health organization spokeswoman Tiffany Zulkosky. Half to three-quarters of passengers take voluntary tests at the airport, Zulkosky said. The rest walk out into the community.
“They travel into Anchorage or Southcentral or other areas where there’s active community spread. They bring the virus back, asymptomatic,” Winkelman said. “But for our airport testing program, we would not have known about those active cases.”
Airport testing has identified about half the cases confirmed in the region, officials say.
Of the new cases confirmed in the region last week, three work at Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center. Two Bethel state court employees also tested positive, briefly closing the courthouse to the public for cleaning. One was a pilot for Grant Aviation, which provides regional air service to and from Bethel.
The pilot, a Juneau resident, initially tested negative after traveling to the Lower 48 for a family emergency, according to Grant Aviation CFO Rob Kelley. But a follow-up test was positive, Kelley said, adding the pilot has no symptoms of the disease.
About a dozen other pilots found to be close contacts tested negative, he said, which makes the company think the second result might have been a false positive.
The pilot did fly passengers before the second test results came back, and all were notified, Kelley said, adding he hadn’t heard of anyone testing positive.
Grant would have “absolutely zero problem” with a Bethel testing requirement if the tests were provided, he said.
YKHC provides airport testing for free, using CARES Act funding, officials there say. So far, the organization has spent more than $1 million on COVID-19 operational costs.
Still, the YKHC bid for mandatory testing faces an uphill battle: There’s no ordinance requiring airport testing on the next city council agenda, though the council did adopt a mask mandate for city facilities and strongly encourages residents and visitors to wear them in specific situations, according to city clerk Lori Strickler.
City officials voiced concerns they lacked legal authority to require health mandates but guidance from the Alaska Municipal Attorney Association indicates the city does have that power, YKHC attorney Chris Beltzer said.
A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Social Services, meanwhile, said in an email that officials there had “not had any communications from YKHC about this topic. If YKHC would like to have a conversation they know how to contact DHSS. DHSS will not debate conjecture through the media.”
Many communities have established their own testing protocols depending on the best fit for residents, DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett said. More than half the testing sites statewide are operated by tribal health organizations through partnerships.
A contractor who works in the region said adding more testing protocols could further complicate rural Alaska’s already challenging work environment, pointing out that projects underway now may have been bid before the pandemic, so delays to wait for test results and other costs weren’t factored into contingency estimates.
But Alaska state Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat from Bethel, said he supports mandatory testing at the airport and for workers, including those employed by the state.
Hoffman pointed to the vulnerability of older village residents, some of whom grew up hearing stories of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic. Recent data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services showed Alaska Natives, as well as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, are disproportionately likely to get COVID-19 and also to experience more severe illness.
Hoffman flew home from Anchorage last week and this week got a call: Someone within a few rows of his on the plane tested positive. Now, he said Thursday, he’s on lockdown for another week.
“This COVID issue is a very, very serious issue,” Hoffman said. “The elders in the region, many of them understand what happened many, many years ago was devastating to Alaska Native people and they are being hurt hardest by COVID.”