Despite months of aggressive measures, Fort Yukon reports 21 cases of COVID-19

Fort Yukon in June 2020 (Photo courtesy of Elliott Hinz)

Locals in the Yukon River community of Fort Yukon are dealing with a significant outbreak of COVID-19, despite aggressive measures taken to keep the virus out of the community. 

Dacho Alexander of the Gwichyaa Zhee tribal council says that 21 people have tested positive so far with four seriously ill. 

“We’ve had a few medevacs recently of people who have come down with more severe symptoms. And so those folks have been sent to Fairbanks for additional medical help,” he said.  

Signs at a fish camp (Photo courtesy of Melinda Peter)

That’s despite a village-wide lockdown that’s been in effect since March. While travel restrictions slowly eased, including a ten-day period in late June where people from outside the village could come in, provided they had a local sponsor, the village has been vigilant about letting people in.

Alexander says the community is manning a 24-hour river watch to keep outsiders from entering and has restricted store access to just two people at a time. It also has an enforced curfew, and Alexander says the streets are mostly quiet without kids playing outside. 

How the virus got in the village is still unclear. Alexander says the first person to test positive had been medevaced to Fairbanks for a different reason. They tested positive there, resulting in widespread testing in the village – 180 tests since the first positive out of the village of about 500, according to Alexander. Those resulted in the other positives, but meanwhile, the Fairbanks patient had a second test that came back negative. 

“We never would have knew that there was widespread community outbreak without that first positive Fairbanks, which it turns out was a false positive,” he said. 

Alexander said that staying on top of additional cases is a challenge due to testing limitations.  He said they’re relying on rapid testing in the village, as well more accurate state-provided tests that must be sent out for processing.

The school in Fort Yukon (Photo courtesy of Elliott Hinz)

“Getting those tests processed is becoming more difficult, and those tests are becoming less available,” he said. He said the village had to wait about two weeks for the last test results to come back from the state, but Thursday evening those tests came back negative.

Alexander says the situation is concerning because, like most bush villages, local health care is very limited. He said that so far, the state hasn’t stepped in to provide reassurance or support. 

“The leadership of Fort Yukon has been pretty much going it alone. We’ve requested assistance a few times. But we’ve kind of been met with crickets,” he said.  Still, the village has received two rapid testing machines, one from ANTHC and the other from the nearby tribal government of Venetie. That allows for quick testing, but it is less accurate than the state-run PCR testing. 

Alexander said the situation is further complicated by the cooperative and labor-intensive subsistence lifestyle.

“You know when you’re going out setting a fish wheel — it requires, you know, a lot of hands and so you may be around people out of necessity,” he said.

Alexander said village residents are relying even more on subsistence because the pandemic caused a reduction of cargo flight bringing in fresh food. 

Fort Yukon residents at a summer fish camp (Photo courtesy of Melinda Peter)

And the village is banding together. Alexander says village leaders and the broader community have responded by trying to shield elders and others vulnerable to illness. He says that includes doing grocery shopping, laundry and other errands for people quarantined at home.

“Quarantine it’s a very difficult thing because a lot of these folks live in multi-generational households. There’s a lot of people in the same house and when we have one positive case it means the entire household has to be quarantined,” he said. 

The school district has offered up a dormitory in case the town needs more sites for isolation, which so far hasn’t become necessary. 

And residents have also taken to mask-wearing. 

“We were asking people to wear masks back in March, long before it was even a suggestion by the state so most people have been very good,” he said, and estimated that compliance was at about 95%. 

For now, the community is waiting for the rest of the results and is hoping no others are infected. And Dacho said that despite all the mitigation measures taken early on, residents are still committed to doing their best to keep neighbors safe. 

 “The community is keeping things in perspective. You know, there’s definitely a renewed vigilance in protecting our both of our community,” he said. 

With additional reporting by Alaska Public Media’s Lex Treinen

This story has been updated with new information after the outstanding test results came back negative.