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Rural Alaska

Coronavirus infections spike across Arctic Alaska despite lockdowns

  • Author: Jenna Kunze
    , Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: September 23
  • Published September 23

Kotzebue, Alaska June 24, 2016. (Sarah Bell / ADN)

UTQIAGVIK — Coronavirus infections have spiked across the Alaska Arctic in the past week, despite lockdowns in hub cities of the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs.

Between Sept. 14 and Sept. 21, 28 people tested positive in Utqiaġvik, nearly doubling the cumulative caseload in less than three weeks at 89 cases, according to media statements from the Arctic Slope Native Association.

As of Monday, there were 33 active cases, the most at any time during the pandemic.

In the Northwest Arctic Borough, 21 people tested positive for the virus in Kotzebue and Buckland during the same weeklong period — more than half of them in Buckland, Maniilaq Association reported. As of Tuesday, 102 residents of the borough have tested positive for the virus, including a few nonresident cases, according to Maniilaq spokesperson Kelli Shroyer. There were 25 active cases as of Tuesday.

On the North Slope, medical staff reported that most of the recent cases were transmitted by community spread.

On Sept. 18., North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. extended the emergency “hunker down” order for the second time to stop virus transmission. The new order will end at 11:59 p.m. Oct. 5 and mandates that all people in Utqiaġvik stay home (except for essential needs), wear a face mask in public and wash their hands.

Barrow in November 2013. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The same day, Department of Health and Social Services Director Glenn Sheehan issued an order to “all food distribution centers” that requires employees stay home if they are sick or have been in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, wash and sanitize their hands every hour, and limit shoppers to one per 200 square feet.

It also requires all shoppers and employees to wear face coverings, and prohibits children from food stores “unless they are the shopper for the household.”

Last, the mandate requires food stores to offer disinfectant at their entrance and exit, and install guiding tape signage on the floor to direct traffic one-way down each aisle and space shoppers 6 feet apart at checkout lines. Shopping carts and baskets should be disinfected by staff after each use, the order reads. Other “high touch” areas like door handles are required to be disinfected hourly.

On Sept. 10, the city of Kotzebue superseded an emergency order that had been in place in the Northwest Arctic Borough since May with more stringent COVID-19 testing regulations for incoming travelers and residents.

According to state of Alaska, local communities can enact stricter travel protocols than the state so long as they don’t prohibit or restrict travel for emergency first responders, law enforcement, employees of the Office of Children’s Services, essential government services, and residents returning home who show no symptoms of COVID-19.

In Kotzebue, 59% of all cases have been travel-related, according to Maniilaq Association’s statistics as of Sept. 15. Twenty-three percent of cases were spread from a previously positive individual, and 18% were spread by community transmission.

Currently, COVID-19 testing throughout Alaska is not required by the state to test or prior to travel or quarantine while waiting for their results, according to a spokesperson from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Instead, it is up to each community to impose and enforce its own requirements, and to the traveler to comply with those regulations.

Kotzebue’s new emergency regulation requires all individuals avoid non-essential travel when possible and, if not, gain entry to the community by showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours prior to arrival. Individuals without a test upon arrival are required to submit to one at the airport and self-quarantine until results are received.

Though the mandate took effect Sept. 10, not all incoming residents and travelers are complying, officials say.

“Most travelers are agreeing to be tested or coming in with tests, but there are some who are not being tested,” Maniilaq Association’s Shroyer said. “It does appear most of our cases are traveling-related.”

To curtail the spread, Kotzebue’s city attorney Joe Evans asked state officials this month to mandate testing for travelers coming from Anchorage or Fairbanks through Kotzebue to any of the Northwest Arctic Borough villages.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum denied the city’s request. He said that the state has already invested “significant resources” to make testing for residents that will be traveling within a state available at airports.

“City of Kotzebue ... has a requirement for negative test for arriving passengers, which has the effect of what you are requesting,” Crum wrote in an email to Evans on Sept. 9. “At this time, we won’t be implementing a statewide mandate as requested. But we will continue to make available the airport testing, and to continue working to set up community testing sites in urban areas to remove any barriers to testing.”

Manillaq Association has been using rapid testing on village-bound passengers in Kotzebue to mitigate the spread of the virus to the villages. On Sept. 22, the agency wrote on their Facebook that a protocol change will make it likely that village-bound passengers will not have a COVID-19 test in hand when returning home. The agency is waiting for state clarification on the specifics of the protocol change, Shroyer said. In the meantime, they urge passengers seek testing in Anchorage — either at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport or the Alaska Native Medical Center — three days before flying to Kotzebue.

“The lack of a rapid test for folks arriving in Kotzebue means folks who want to fly into the villages of the Northwest Arctic Borough and Point Hope on Bering Air will not have the required current negative COVID-19 test in hand required by Bering Air before boarding their flights to the villages. ... Standard COVID-19 test results can take three to 10 days to get back,” Evans said.

Evans said now the difficulty is show how to safeguard communities from the virus when standard COVID-19 tests take 10 days to get back, at which point the virus would have ample time to spread if the person is not self-isolating.

“That’s the question of the moment: What are we going to do?” Evans said.

In the village of Buckland — which has been stringently managing its own quarantine camps and requiring mayoral approval for all incoming individuals — cases spiked on Sept. 11 when four Buckland residents arriving to the Northwest Arctic Borough on Aug. 31 and Sept. 31 tested positive, the Manillaq Association reported. All four residents were in close contact with previous COVID-19 positive cases. Six days later, another 11 Buckland residents tested positive for the virus, 10 of which were determined to be in close contact with the previous cases and were found during community-wide testing in Buckland.