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Rural Alaska

Health officials urge end to non-family gatherings in Southwest Alaska

BETHEL — Health officials in an Alaska region with a growing COVID-19 outbreak asked residents to stop gathering with non-household members to slow the spread of the virus.

Officials said 126 people tested positive for the virus in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta over the past two weeks, KYUK Public Media reported Thursday.

The percentage of people who tested positive in the Bethel Census Area jumped from about 1% to nearly 5%, while the rate is more than 3% in the Kusilvak Census Area.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. said it is conducting about the same number of tests, but that more people are suddenly testing positive.

Corporation Chief of Staff Ellen Hodges said the rapid increase has surpassed testing capabilities in the region.

“Once your test positivity rate gets to 10% or 12%, then the virus is basically raging out of control,” Hodges said. “You’re not testing enough people. You can’t. You don’t have enough people to test all the people.”

The heath corporation urged residents to stop hosting and attending gatherings with people outside of their households. The corporation’s case investigations show most positive cases in the region resulted from people gathering with family and friends.

“For the most part, it’s people you know. It’s not strangers, it’s not people in the grocery store,” Hodges said.

One person in the region infected more than 40 people by visiting others, officials said.

The Chevak Tribal Council declared a community lockdown Oct. 12 after a student at the village school tested positive for the virus, KYUK-AM reported.

Chevak Superintendent David Lougee said the school has conducted remote learning since Oct. 7 when the student first experienced symptoms.

Chevak joins Quinhagak, Kipnuk and Kasigluk on the list of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities currently in lockdown because of the virus.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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