180 Chevak residents have been newly infected with COVID-19. What happened?

Chevak, AK. (Flickr Creative Commons photo)
Chevak, AK. (Flickr Creative Commons photo)

In the past week, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation has announced more than 180 new cases of COVID-19 in the Western Alaska village of Chevak, seemingly out of nowhere. In the village of just over 1,000 residents, almost 20% of the population has now been infected with the coronavirus.

Mayor Richard Tuluk suggested that the virus had circulated undetected in Chevak for a long time, prior to the explosion of cases over the last week.

“Some of those first tests we did, we found out that it was not travel-related, that it had been here quite a while for quite some time,” Tuluk said.

Read more stories on how COVID-19 is affecting rural Alaska

YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges confirmed Tuluk’s explanation for what happened in Chevak.

“The people who get infected, especially this time of year, may think that they just have a cold. They may not think anything of it,” Hodges said.

“They may feel safe because there haven’t been any confirmed cases in their village, she said. “And they may not take the precautions that we know work, such as wearing a face mask and keeping our social circles small, which in some of our villages has allowed the virus to spread undetected.”

In this scenario, Hodges said, someone eventually gets tested and YKHC travels to the village to conduct community-wide testing, which reveals how far the virus has spread.

Tiffany Zulkosky, YKHC’s vice president of communications, said that COVID-19 testing was readily available at Chevak’s health clinic for anyone who wanted it even before the latest outbreak.

Tuluk said that residents are taking precautions seriously now, but it wasn’t always the case. Even after Chevak declared a lockdown on Oct. 12, after the first few cases in the village, Tuluk said that people were still visiting others.

“There were still people out there going to other houses or allowing their kids to go visit their grandparents,” he said. “A lot of people at that time were not following instructions, so that contributed to probably spread a little more faster.”

Tuluk said that the village instituted a stricter lockdown a few days ago. At this point, even residents of Chevak who traveled outside of the village are not being allowed back in.

“We’re telling them to hold off until we get over this lockdown,” Tuluk said.

The village announced the stricter phase of the lockdown on radio and VHF. Now, Tuluk said, almost everyone is following the instructions to stay home.

“From the first one we did, it’s a lot better,” Tuluk said.

Chevak resident Zackar Levi is staying positive about the lockdown.

“It’s a good chance to catch up with the family all the time, staying in the house all the time,” Levi said.

Levi’s little brother is one of the people in Chevak who has tested positive for the coronavirus. He said that his brother is asymptomatic.

“We’ve tried a lot not to let it bother him too much. Usually, he gets easily scared,” Levi said.

To keep his brother’s mind off the virus, Levi said that he’s downloading fourth-grade homework from various websites and helping his little brother work through it.

Education has become even more difficult under the latest lockdown. Chevak’s superintendent, Dave Lougee, said that teachers can’t deliver paperwork packets, so they’re putting lessons and math problems on their classroom Facebook pages.

“I don’t think we’re reaching them all, but we’re trying to get as many as we can,” Lougee said.

Lougee also said that the school district recently received equipment from GCI to set up an intranet so that students can exchange files with teachers without using any internet data. But he doesn’t know how the district can set it up during the lockdown.

As for play, kids are being told to do that from home as well. Earl Atchak said that his kids are sleeping more and talking on the phone more.

“They’re being on the phone in the evenings talking, like having a seven-way call or however way they’re doing it right now, these younger kids,” Atchak said. “That’s how they’re keeping communication and keeping sane.”

Despite the challenges of isolation, Mayor Tuluk said, people must follow the instructions of the lockdown and stay home if the village is to combat COVID-19.

“The risk of spreading that virus will be to a minimum, or even can be stopped when everybody cooperates,” Tuluk said.

“For those people that may not be caring about the whole situation, I ask them to look at their own family or their parents that may be Elders. And that they hopefully realize what they’re doing is putting out a risk to their family members.”

On Oct. 23, YKHC announced that the state plans to send a team to Chevak to help Tuluk and other village leaders with emergency planning and quarantine response. More than 70% of Chevak’s residents have been tested. Hodges said that YKHC is planning to send a team next week to perform more testing.