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Rural Alaska

COVID-19 outbreak in Kivalina has Northwest Alaska village on high alert

Aerial view of the village of Kivalina on Feb. 16, 2015. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

At least 10% of the population of the community of Kivalina tested positive for COVID-19 this week as elevated case levels continue around Western Alaska.

Tribal officials have started water deliveries to home-bound Kivalina residents to stave off additional spread of the virus.

The village of just over 450 sits on a skinny barrier island along the Chukchi Sea, high above the Arctic Circle. The community has no water or sewer services; a 600,000-gallon steel tank holds winter water supply and household sewage is hauled in “honey buckets” to a disposal site.

On Monday and Tuesday, 44 Kivalina residents tested positive for the virus, according to tribal health officials at Maniilaq Association.

Kivalina’s tribal administrator says it appears the outbreak is linked to travel and holiday gatherings. Kivalina has had various COVID-19 mandates in place since April.

The community is currently on “high alert status” with widespread community spread, Maniilaq said in a statement that recommended residents hunker down and avoid contact with people outside their households.

Separately, nearly 100 new cases and two deaths were reported this week by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. The new reports included 20 cases in Chefornak, 19 in Bethel, and 13 in Atmautluak, a village of about 300 people 20 miles northwest of Bethel.

In Kivalina, finding space for COVID-positive cases to isolate outside their homes is proving impossible, tribal administrator Millie Hawley said. The community has space reserved for that purpose: the former Boys and Girls Club building that can accommodate three to six people

“With that many cases, it wouldn’t make a difference,” Hawley said Thursday.

Instead, the tribal office is paying workers to haul “buckets and buckets” of water to homes so residents don’t have to leave and potentially infect others, she said. Tribal officials have also hired people who aren’t feeling sick and have a negative COVID-19 test to fill fuel tanks and pick up groceries at the store. The tribal office started a honey bucket hauling program in April that allows residents to leave buckets outside in containers for pick-up.

Hawley said she tested positive on Wednesday but isn’t experiencing any symptoms.

One tribal member with COVID-19 was medevaced to Anchorage on Wednesday night, she said. Another person who visited Kivalina and then returned to their home village was also medevaced this week. But most of the local cases are either mild or people like her without symptoms.

A Maniilaq spokeswoman did not immediately return requests for information on continued testing and contact tracing efforts in the community.

The association that serves about 8,000 people within Northwest Arctic Borough and the village of Point Hope urged people in communities throughout the service area to practice social distancing and hand washing, avoid gatherings and wear masks.

Hawley said it’s very possible far more people have the virus but testing can’t keep up. Medical staff were testing two to four people per household “because most homes have multiple extended families,” she said.

It’s very quiet in town where normally the buzz of four-wheelers and snowmachines would fill the air, especially given the strangely warm weather and the kids not in school, Hawley said. Usually it’s 30 below by now. Temperatures climbed to 20 above last month. It was six below Thursday morning.

“Right now everybody’s hunkered down,” she said.

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