Health corporation urges coronavirus testing for anyone traveling to Bethel

Volunteer Lucas Salzbrun hands out swabs and gives directions on how to do a self-swab at the airport coronavirus test site in Bethel, Alaska on April 29, 2020. (Photo courtesy Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is urging all airline passengers arriving in Bethel to get tested for the coronavirus. Corporation CEO and President Dan Winkelman is also calling on the governor and employers to encourage volunteer testing.

“Gov. Dunleavy should strongly urge passengers to volunteer for COVID-19 testing at remote airports when they are available as he eases mandates,” Winkelman wrote in a statement. “Testing is a core public health strategy to detect, isolate, and trace new cases, and I look forward to the day that 100 percent of Alaska Airlines’ passengers are tested when arriving to Bethel.”

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The health corporation head warned that the region’s risk of exposure will increase as more people travel into the area. If all arriving travelers are tested, then any possible contagion can be traced and contained as health mandates are lifted and flights increase.

“YKHC encourages all businesses and organizations that have employees who travel from out-of-region to Bethel to urge their staff to volunteer for free COVID-19 testing upon arrival at the Bethel airport,” Winkelman said. “We also encourage all passengers, whether local residents or visitors, to agree to free COVID-19 testing at the Bethel airport.”

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The health corporation has been offering testing free to all arriving passengers since April 23 outside the Alaska Airlines terminal. Fewer than half of the passengers have opted to get tested.

Corporation spokesperson Mitchell Forbes says that health officials are confident that the virus is not spreading person-to-person within the region, which means the only way it can enter the Y-K Delta is through incoming travelers. The two confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region came from people who had traveled outside the Y-K Delta.

On May 22, Dunleavy lifted many state health mandates requiring public health measures to contain the virus. Some localities, including some villages, are keeping restrictions in place. The reopening came one week after YKHC confirmed the second positive test in the region, and the first case in a village outside of Bethel. The person had received a coronavirus test at the Bethel airport, allowing health officials to quickly contain and respond to the case.

In a statement, YKHC said, “This case highlights the urgent need for all passengers to be tested.”

State health mandates remain in place prohibiting travel to or from off-road communities, like Bethel, except for critical personal needs, to conduct essential services, or for critical infrastructure. Mandates also remain in place for people arriving in Alaska from outside the state to self-quarantine for two weeks.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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