Yukon-Kuskokwim COVID-19 spike shows pandemic could be ‘out of control’

A hand with a blue glove drops a test tube in a ziploc bag held by two green hands.
YKHC technicians collect samples in June, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Health officials are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a critical point that requires everyone in the region to stop gathering with non-household members to slow the spread of the virus.

Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said she’s worried about the region.

“Our test positivity rate in the last two weeks has really increased. That is an indication of a pandemic out of control,” she said. 

Read more stories about how the coronavirus is affecting rural Alaska.

Over the last two weeks, 126 people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have tested positive for the coronavirus, accounting for nearly half the cases in the region since the pandemic began.

The percentage of people testing positive in the Bethel Census Area over thoes two weeks also jumped from around 1% to nearly 5%. The Kusilvak Census Area is now just over 3%. That’s a sharp increase in a short period of time.

YKHC is conducting about the same number of tests, but more people are suddenly testing positive. If the rate keeps climbing, that likely means people will not get the healthcare they need, and YKHC’s capacity to test enough people to know who is sick and who is not will be overwhelmed, Hodges said.

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“Once your test positivity rate gets to 10% or 12%,” she said, “then the virus is basically raging out of control. You’re not testing enough people. You can’t. You don’t have enough people to test all the people. And a lot of people are getting sick, and are in the community and not getting tested.”

To prevent the region from reaching that point, YKHC is urging everyone to stop hosting and attending gatherings with people outside of their households. YKHC’s case investigations show that most positive cases in the region were contracted from people gathering with family and friends.

“For the most part, it’s people you know. It’s not strangers, it’s not people in the grocery store,” Hodges said.

One person in the region who tested positive infected over 40 people with the virus by visiting with others. The transmission can happen quickly and from someone who appears healthy.

“The largest amount of virus that you have in your system is actually in the 36 hours before you start showing symptoms. So you may feel perfectly well,” Hodges said, “but still be able to infect people.”

Other people who test positive never experience symptoms, but can still transmit the virus.

The warning to stop gathering with friends and family becomes more urgent as temperatures drop and people start spending more time indoors, and as the holidays approach, Hodges said.

The warning also applies to outdoor gatherings.

“Now is not the time,” she said. “Keep your social circles nice and small. Keep them really tight. Maybe your household only. Maybe one or two people whose mask wearing and infection control matches your own.”

Community spread of the virus has occurred in Bethel, Quinhagak, and Nunapitchuk.

In Quinhagak, the outbreaks are still occurring, but the pace of new cases is slowing. At least 66 people in the village have tested positive between Oct. 1 and Oct. 14. In Nunapitchuk, there are no active cases after a long lockdown.

“There are some families there who have been in quarantine for weeks, and I’m just so grateful to everyone and everything that they’ve done to make that outbreak better,” Hodges said. “But it really involved a concerted village-wide effort to hunker down and shelter-in-place, not be visiting, not be leaving their household, and just working really, really hard to get that under control.”

YKHC began community-wide COVID-19 testing in Chevak this week after a resident tested positive. The health corporation says that it will take everyone following health precautions to contain the virus in the region.

“If everyone hunkers down, if everyone wears their mask, if everyone limits their social circles, we can get ahead of this,” Hodges said. “We can flatten the curve. We can make a difference.”