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Rural Alaska

St. Paul in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands goes into hunker down after confirming first COVID-19 case

The city of St. Paul is seen on June 5, 2008 on the Bering Sea island of St. Paul Island. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

The Bering Sea community of St. Paul issued an emergency hunker down ordinance Thursday after confirming its first case of COVID-19.

An essential worker who initially tested negative before traveling to St. Paul later tested positive on the island, and city officials said in a statement that they were informed of the positive test result Wednesday. The community is located on the tip of St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands.

School will be remote for the next two weeks, with packets getting dropped off by teachers because the internet isn’t great in St. Paul. Despite the fact that it’s orthodox Lent, church services are postponed. Only one person per household is allowed into the store at a time, said St. Paul City Manager Phillip Zavadil.

It’s the first confirmed case of the illness in St. Paul, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Zavadil credited prompt action in the community for keeping out the virus for so long.

“I think the proactive approach that we took — with a little bit of luck — kept COVID at bay for over a year now,” he said. “But it was just a matter of time before something happened.”

The community tried to use its geographic isolation to its advantage, Zavadil said. St. Paul implemented a travel ban early in the pandemic, eliminated nonessential travel and required specific workforce plans be submitted to the city for any essential work. They’ve also had a face mask requirement in public places like the store and post office.

St. Paul has 370 full-time residents and has a little less than 300 nonresident essential workers on the island, between processor workers and others.

Those who traveled with the worker were already in quarantine and were slated to begin a new two-week-long quarantine Thursday. Anyone who worked with or was in contact with the worker was also contacted to start quarantining Thursday, officials said.

The city’s hunker down period runs from 6 p.m. April 1 to 6 p.m. April 15 and was approved by the St. Paul City Council on Thursday. All of St. Paul’s residents — aside from those who work in essential government, business and health care services — are being asked to stay at home, St. Paul officials wrote in a public message.

The order asks people not to visit with people they do not live with.

“So for my wife and I, at lunchtime today, we went over to our grandkids’ house and kind of loved them up for the last time for the next two weeks,” Zavadil said.

He and his wife might still visit them through the window or deliver meals, but they’re not going to interact with them indoors, he said.

“This was not an easy decision but ultimately the safest decision for our community,” St. Paul officials said.

According to officials, 177 St. Paul residents are fully vaccinated while 20 residents and 154 nonresidents have one dose of the vaccine.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that one person was allowed in the store at a time. The store is actually allowing one person per household at a time.

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