Napaskiak says residents are facing discrimination after announcement of likely community spread

June 29, Napaskiak officials issued a press release saying, since the announcement of likely community spread in the village, residents have experienced “humiliation, discrimination, and feeling victimized.” (Credit Liann Walgenbach)

On June 25, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced that there was likely “community spread” of COVID-19 in Napaskiak. The announcement came after two people who were in the village tested positive for COVID-19. The next week, Napaskiak officials issued a press release saying that the village has since experienced “humiliation, discrimination, and feeling victimized.”

Tribal Administrator Sharon Williams says that Napaskiak residents are being turned away at Bethel businesses, even when they are following COVID-19 health protocols. Last week, she sent two workers to NAPA Auto Supply in Bethel for parts to fix the village’s power plant, which she says is an essential need. Williams said that the two Napaskiak residents tested negative for coronavirus and were wearing masks inside the store.

“Once the worker heard Napaskiak, he asked them to get out,” Williams said.

The village blames the way the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation disclosed the likely existence of community spread of COVID-19 in the village. Williams said that the stigma was worsened when YKHC sent an e-mail to all of its staff saying that any employee that traveled to Napaskiak recently must be tested for COVID-19. 

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“I feel terrible for our village,” Williams said.

YKHC was surprised by the village’s press release. Communications Director Tiffany Zulkosky said that the Napaskiak tribal chief, tribal administrator, and mayor had all approved the announcement about likely community spread, and said that it would not have been published without the village’s support.

But now, Tribal Administrator Williams says that the announcement shouldn’t have been made because she doesn’t agree that there actually is community spread of COVID-19 in her village. There have only been two cases in Napaskiak; in the first case, the individual initially received a positive test result, but two subsequent lab tests returned negative.

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“What I’m trying to point out is, the first one was false,” Williams said.

Zulkosky said YKHC does not believe any cases it announced in the month of June were false positives, which is when both cases in Napaskiak occurred. Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges says that inconsistent test results are more often because the individual has a low amount of the virus, and sometimes tests can’t detect it.

“The testing may be inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t infected with the coronavirus,” Hodges said.

YKHC stands by its assessment of likely community spread in Napaskiak, made in consultation with the Alaska Section of Epidemiology, and believes that it was important to make the information public. The health corporation said in a statement that “no one knows when a COVID-19 infection will result in serious illness that leads to hospitalization or death… We believe not identifying the public health risk, once our providers noticed these trends, would have put lives at risk.”

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It is not yet clear that there are only two cases that were in Napaskiak, since not all village residents have received test results yet. Following the first case in Napaskiak, 263 people in the village volunteered for testing, which is 64% of the population according to YKHC. Widespread testing was again offered in the village from June 26 to July 1. 

Since Napaskiak’s press release about discrimination against its residents in Bethel, some businesses have apologized. NAPA Manager Stacy Erlendson said that the employee who asked the Napaskiak residents to leave the store was not following store policy.

“We’re not discriminating against anybody here,” Erlendson said.

Erlendson said that he called the Napaskiak tribal administrator to apologize, and offered several ways that villagers could shop at his store. He said that first of all, Napaskiak residents are allowed to come inside. He also said that they could also call ahead and pick up items outside the store, or he would even deliver to the village. 

“I told them that if there’s anything they need for a one-time thing to be mailed out, we’ll take care of the freight to send it out to them,” Erlendson said.

Other villages that have experienced cases of COVID-19 are used to creative ways of interacting with other communities. Nunapitchuk Tribal Council President Jay Alexie Sr. said that when a resident in his village tested positive, the Nunapitchuk store found a way to let Kasigluk residents buy items while minimizing in-person contact.

“What we did was they call to the store, bought what they want with the manager, paid for it, and the police station here used to deliver it halfway across to Kasigluk, and give that to the other TPO, and they deliver it,” Alexie said.

Alexie says that he’s thankful that Napaskiak shared the news of likely community spread there. He said that Nunapitchuk announced the COVID-19 case in his village back in May in order to warn its neighbors.  

“Every village should,” Alexie said. “When they have that COVID-19, they should tell the other villages that there’s COVID-19 going on in that village so they would not go to that village until they are cleared or not.”  

Alexie said that he’s not surprised that Napaskiak is facing some discrimination after the news of community spread there, but he says that this pandemic is serious. The numbers for the Y-K Delta are increasing by the day. In June, YKHC announced 10 cases of COVID-19 linked to the region.