Amid COVID-19 surge in Y-K Delta, health officials call for lockdowns, school closures

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)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is now one of the nation’s leaders in COVID-19 infection rates. In order to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the region, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is asking for drastic actions. The organization’s recommendations include almost 20 villages locking down and that villages in the region shut down schools for now.

Four communities in the Y-K Delta currently have community spread of the coronavirus. Thirty-one communities have now had at least one COVID-19 case.

“I can’t emphasize the urgency of this anymore,” said YKHC chief of staff Dr. Ellen Hodges. “We are in danger of overwhelming our health care system.“

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To prevent that from happening, the health corporation provided updated guidance to school districts on Oct. 27. Hodges said that YKHC has observed potential spread of the virus in schools and she said that students in every Y-K Delta community should no longer go to school at all for the time being.

“We are now recommending that every school district in the region transition to their highest risk level of red, at which, generally speaking, is remote learning only,” Hodges said.

In a press release on Oct. 28, the Lower Kuskokwim School District announced that it would move to remote learning in all of its school sites, effective immediately.

YKHC CEO and president Dan Winkelman said that after talking to school districts, YKHC turned to village leaders.

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“We got on the phone and notified 14 tribes and cities across the Y-K Delta they should go on lockdown for the next two weeks, at a minimum,” Winkelman said.

The villages that were advised to lock down this week are: Akiak; Akiachak; Alakanuk; Chefornak; Eek; Kongiganak; Kwethluk; Napakiak; Nunapitchuk; Pilot Station; Russian Mission; Scammon Bay; Tuluksak and Tununak.

That’s on top of five villages that were already locked down before this week began. Those include Chevak, Mountain Village, Napaskiak, Quinhagak and Toksook Bay.

Tiffany Zulkosky, YKHC Vice President of Communications, said that these villages do not all necessarily have a confirmed COVID-19 case there but could be interconnected with other villages that do.

“The idea is if we engage in this in this behavior with a very strict shelter in place, or hunker down, or lockdown order, that we can interrupt the transmission of this highly contagious virus in our region before it gets out of hand like it already has in several of our villages,” Hodges said.

Zulkosky added that these lockdowns could prevent widespread, undetected transmission of the virus.

Winkelman said that he knows these measures can work because he’s seen it work in Nunapitchuk, a village that previously had community spread of the virus, but no longer does.

“They implemented strong public health strategies, and then the community itself took the lockdown seriously,” Winkelman said. “And if other communities are able to do that, there is no reason why they couldn’t replicate the same success.”

Health officials also have a message for communities that aren’t locked down: Not having any documented cases in your village does not mean that you are safe.

Winkelman said that every person in the Y-K Delta needs to change their mindset to the new reality.

“COVID is so widespread now within the entire Y-K Delta that you have to assume that when you meet with others outside of your household, you have to assume that they possibly have COVID,” Winkelman said.

Zulkosky added that communities cannot just rely on travel restrictions. She said that people also need to hunker down, wear masks, avoid gatherings, and practice all known preventive measures.

Winkelman also emphasized the importance of notifying community members when someone in a village tests positive for COVID-19. He said that some tribal and city leaders still won’t allow YKHC to identify those communities. Winkelman urged Y-K Delta residents to speak with their leaders. He said that people should know the extent of the public health threat they’re dealing with in order to take proper precautions.