Testing ramps up in rural Alaska, but is it enough?

A swab and tube for specimen collection in the lab at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Hospital in Bethel, Alaska.
(Credit Katie Basile/KYUK)

With the first case of coronavirus confirmed in Southwest Alaska, state officials and tribal health consortia are ramping up testing capabilities in rural Alaska communities. 

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During an evening press conference on Tuesday, state officials acknowledged the challenges facing villages that rely on air travel to deliver mail, medical supplies, and food. Ravn Air Group’s decision to abruptly suspend all operations and declare bankruptcy left rural health care organizations, state officials, and airlines scrambling to fill in the gaps. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has sent 40 rapid testing machines to rural communities. Those should allow same-day test results for coronavirus.

“The thing about these machines is that they don’t test a lot of cases at once, but they can return results in location, so we don’t have to send them to state labs,” said the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.

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Zink said that the state is working with health aides in villages to make sure they have enough testing supplies. Meanwhile, an evangelical Christian aid organization is delivering medical gear for rural communities. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said that tribal health consortia from around the region are in charge of getting those out to villages that need them. 

But beyond identifying supply needs, the state has been limited in its emergency response in rural communities. Crum said that they have worked closely with tribal health organizations to set up 19 alternative care sites to help hubs like Bethel deal with an outbreak. Those include infrastructure and lodging to accommodate residents in villages who need to self-isolate or quarantine.

“As far as quarantine housing, a lot of regions around the state, we’ve identified possible quarantine items as necessary if people can’t be safely quarantined in their home area or if they are stranded,” Crum said.

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He did not say when the state will deliver that infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, commercial fishing is another top concern for coastal communities, like the Bristol Bay region. The City of Dillingham and the Curyung Tribal Council sent a letter to the governor urging him to close commercial fishing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Bristol Bay’s summer fishing season includes the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Every year, thousands of fishermen and processing workers flood into small communities around the region. Crum said that state officials are in talks with stakeholders on how to move forward.

“So we’re going to make sure that the local communities understand what the proper response is,” said Crum.

Travel within rural Alaska could present new challenges to state officials trying to help villages prevent the spread of coronavirus. Tribes have started restricting travel within their communities to limit the transmission of the virus. Those restrictions vary in severity, with some tribes recommending that non-residents don’t enter communities. Others are outright banning all outbound and inbound travel unless it’s for medical or emergency reasons. 

Gov. Dunleavy said that he will address those community-level restrictions, should they limit state response to an outbreak or essential businesses. 

Again, we don’t want to come up with these hard and fast rules that make people in Alaska not want to help out,” Dunleavy said.