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Rural Alaska

First COVID-19 case appears in Bethel, but not everyone wants to be tested

Bethel, Alaska (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2015)

As the first COVID-19 case appeared Monday in the Western Alaska hub of Bethel, a statewide tribal health organization said it is sending 2,400 coronavirus test kits and dozens of rapid-testing machines for use in remote Alaska communities.

But even the as Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium announced the delivery of new testing supplies across the state, the closure of a key rural airline and even patients’ fear of stigma from carrying the virus in tight-knit rural communities has slowed testing efforts in Western Alaska.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which operates a hospital in Bethel and clinics in 48 surrounding villages, had planned to roll-out village-based testing for the coronavirus by April 1. The only air carrier in many of those communities, RavnAir Group, announced bankruptcy on Sunday, meaning there are no available flights to carry frozen swabs from some villages to hubs for testing.

For now, only about a dozen villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region are testing for COVID, said YKHC spokesman Mitchell Forbes. What’s more, some patients in the Bethel area have declined to be tested, even though they meet the criteria for people who might be carrying the virus, he said.

“No one wants to be the first case,” said Forbes said.

“Five or six” people have declined the testing in the area, he said, apparently out of concern of stigma they believed would accompany a positive test result.

A few hours after making those remarks, Forbes announced that Bethel had indeed seen its first confirmed case. “The person is currently self-isolating and YKHC is working with the state of Alaska section of epidemiology and local government officials to ensure precautions are taken to protect people they may have been in contact with,” he wrote in a news release.

Testing for the virus is critical to Alaska’s ability to chart the spread of the illness and to isolate carriers. Anyone who is showing symptoms and agrees to be tested is “really going to help protect your loved ones and your community,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said on Monday.

As of Monday afternoon, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. had administered 69 tests in Western Alaska, with 42 of the tests resulting in negative findings, meaning they detected no sign of the virus in the patients. Another 25 of the test results were pending and two were rejected or not viable for testing, Forbes said.

It is unclear how many tests have been completed in some regions. Arctic Slope Native Association, for example, has not responded to repeated requests for testing numbers in Utqiagvik and North Slope villages.

The isolation of rural Alaska has allowed for some villages to close their borders in hopes of delaying arrival of the virus. But with most communities only accessible by air and the state’s largest air carrier stopping flights, treating seriously ill patients could also pose a logistical challenge in the event of a village outbreak. State officials have said that patients may be flown to treatment by National Guard helicopters if necessary.

ANTHC, the statewide organization that runs the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and works with smaller tribal health organizations across the state, on Monday announced it had purchased 40 “rapid testing machines” and 2,400 test kits for diagnosing the virus to rural Alaska communities. The machines, each with 48 test kits, would be provided to tribal health organizations such as YKHC, Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks and Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. for distribution among local communities, according to a statement by the tribal health consortium.

“Getting tested soon as possible, when indicated by your provider, is the most effective, important way to help one’s community in preventing the spread of this infection,” said Dr. Jacob Gray, an infectious disease physician at Alaska Native Medical Center. “Nobody should be blamed for having COVID-19 and testing is confidential.”

The machines, called ID NOW testing units developed by Abbott Laboratories, allow for health care providers to receive test results on the same day a person is tested, the consortium said.

Here are how many new test analyzers will be sent to each regional tribal health organizations.

• Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp.: 4

• Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium: 4

• Tanana Chiefs Conference: 3

• Norton Sound Health Corp.: 3

• Bristol Bay Area Health Corp.: 3

• Maniilaq Association: 2

• Arctic Slope Native Association: 2

• Kodiak Area Native Association: 2

• Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association: 2

• Eastern Aleutian Tribes: 2

• ANMC lab for training or deployment: 1

• SCF Villages: 2

• Kenaitze Indian Tribe: 1

• Chugachmiut: 1

• Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments-Fort Yukon: 1

• Copper River Native Association: 1

• Native Village of Eyak: 1

• Ketchikan Indian Community: 1

• Metlakatla Indian Community: 1

• Mount Sanford Tribal Consortium: 1

• Seldovia Village Tribe: 1

• Yakutat Tlingit Tribe: 1

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