In Bristol Bay, America’s largest salmon fishery, preparations begin for coronavirus prevention ahead of the season

The Dillingham Public Health Clinic. Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Around Bristol Bay, community leaders, health facilities and local entities are working to coordinate their preparations for the coronavirus.

Thousands of fishermen, processors, and cannery workers will travel to Bristol Bay in the coming months to participate in the commercial fishery. As of Thursday afternoon, no one in the region had been tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Alaska’s first known case of the disease was announced Thursday afternoon.

Follow our continuing coverage of coronavirus in Alaska.

The Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation can now send Q-tip swabs to commercial labs to test for the disease. Dr. Cathy Hyndman is the clinical director for BBAHC.

“Once again, you still have to get the Q-tip in the viral juice to keep it alive until it gets down to the testing center,” Hyndman said. “And there are time limits on how quickly the thing must get there. It seems to be within 72 hours of obtaining the sample. Which is a challenge in the bush.”

Hyndman said they are discussing ways to get the swabbing materials needed for testing out to village clinics if necessary. BBAHC is holding continual education meetings with health aides on prevention, who needs to get tested, and how to administer the test.

“While we do not currently have the viral testing media in the village, should there be someone sick in the village, we can get it out there within the realm of flight,” she said. 

Dillingham City Manager Tod Larson says they are holding regular meetings to assess local prevention efforts. In particular, he is concerned about people coming to the region for the summer fishing season. Larson says the city will be talking with processors to discuss prevention.

“We need to get everybody on the phone and make sure we know who’s coming in here, if they’re going to get screened, what kind of preventative measures they’re going to take, who are they communicating with, is the hospital going to be involved. So there’s a lot of questions around the processors,” Larson said.

That concern was echoed by Gina Carpenter, a public health nurse based in Dillingham.

“It is on a lot of people’s minds that we’re going to have a huge influx of tourists, workers, family coming to visit, and what do we do if coronavirus gets brought in,” she said. 

Carpenter said that public health, BBAHC, the city and several larger businesses were working together to communicate accurate and up-to-date information to the public.

Concerns about the virus have upended plans for organizations around the region. As of Thursday, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation has suspended all non-essential employee travel. CEO Norm Van Vactor said the decision was based on protecting both personnel and other members of the public.

“You look at a lot of the folks on airplanes these days between here and Anchorage, and a lot of them are travelling for health reasons,” Van Vactor said. “And the reason they’re travelling for health reasons is they have a compromised health situation and are potentially susceptible to issues.”

BBEDC has indefinitely postponed a job fair scheduled for later this month in Naknek. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay Sustainability Summit was postponed, and the Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference and Forum has been cancelled.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.