A young girl tested positive for coronavirus in Quinhagak, but leaders say they’re ready

Boats anchored to shore in Quinhagak, Alaska (Krysti Shallenberger / KYUK)

The Quinhagak resident who tested positive for the coronavirus on May 26 was a girl under the age of 10, according to a press release from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The child tested positive in Bethel when traveling to town for medical care. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation quickly dispatched a testing team to Quinhagak, and residents lined up for voluntary testing over the next two days. 

“We were kind of shocked, but we’ve been expecting it because we’ve always told ourselves it’ll come sooner or later,” Quinhagak resident Warren Jones said less than an hour after he was tested for the coronavirus on the morning following the child’s positive test result.

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“There’s a 6-foot distance,” he said, describing the testing site. “It’s all organized very well. Everybody is following the directions.”

He called the testing easier than expected.

“Doesn’t take long and doesn’t even hurt. Just a swab on both sides of your nose and you’re done,” he said.

Jones heard about the positive case the day prior over the VHF radio. He is is the CEO of the Quinhagak village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., which sells fuel and operates the town’s grocery and hardware stores. Immediately, Jones closed the stores’ doors. All orders are now being taken over the phone.

“And we’re going to continue to do so until we get an ‘all clear,’” he said.

Jones said that the testing team from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation landed in town within hours of the announcement of the confirmed case. He said that YKHC began testing close contacts of the confirmed case, and all community members were asked to volunteer for testing. They were asked to arrive at the testing site at specific times in alphabetical order by the last name of the head of household.

“I was impressed with how organized they were over there,” Jones said. “There’s three gals up front taking info. I think a local is helping them. And then there’s two people doing the swabs, and one in the back prepping the swab kits.”

The testing, he said, was done outside the village clinic. Jones described a deliberate process. The community had been preparing for a positive case for months by social distancing, wearing masks, and restricting travel.

“So it was a good practice before it hit, so we were prepared to come up with solutions for the village beforehand so we were ready for it,” he said.

In March, the village corporation, tribe, city, school, and church gathered to create community guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus to and within Quinhagak. Anyone flying into the village was required to have written tribal permission and then had to quarantine, and residents could only travel out for essential reasons.

On May 26, after receiving news of the positive case, the tribal council further tightened these guidelines. Now anyone traveling into Quinhagak must take a coronavirus test upon arrival, and then quarantine with all household members for seven days or until negative test results are received. If someone refuses testing, they must quarantine for 14 days with all household members. These measures remain in effect until June 15.

Kwinhagak Tribal Council President Darren Cleveland wants to see widespread testing throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“All communities in the region should be tested instead of waiting for a positive case to happen, he said. “So we’ll know, identify if there’s a case, and then isolate them and prevent the spread.”

Cleveland is advising Quinhagak residents to continue practicing social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.

“The prevention,” he said, “starts with ourselves.”

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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