Amid raging COVID-19 outbreak, most Y-K villages give up privacy for safety

A village as seen from a marsh below it
Kongiganak, Alaska in 2004 (Department of Commerce Community Photo Database)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation will now announcing which villages have COVID-19 cases and where there is community spread of the virus, but only with those communities’ permission.

The state of Alaska generally withholds the names of villages where there are COVID-19 cases if their populations are smaller than 1,000, but with recent high case numbers, regional health officials say naming the villages would encourage people to take more precautions.

As of Oct. 28, YKHC stated that almost two-thirds of the villages it serves have not given consent. If an individual in one of those communities tests positive or community spread occurs there, YKHC would not even be able to inform the residents living in that community. That’s concerning for YKHC CEO and President Dan Winkelman.

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

“When there’s a positive case, we want the community to know so they can not just take precautions, but also be vigilant about it at all times,” Winkelman said. “And certainly villages around that village, they would also want to know about it too.” 

Some communities say that they intend to submit their consent forms to YKHC, but have been too occupied by other aspects of the coronavirus pandemic to get around to it. Pilot Station Tribal Administrator Martin Kelly said that his village has been in lockdown for the past two weeks, which has prevented him from sending in the necessary form. 

Akiak is another village that has not submitted its consent form. It’s also one of 19 villages that YKHC recommended lock down on Oct. 26. Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community, said that the tribe decided against YKHC’s recommendation for a lockdown.

“We haven’t had any known cases up here yet. And we are aware of the increase of COVID-19 in the region,” Williams Sr. said. “We’re trying to keep our lives as normal as possible.”  

Williams Sr. said that if an individual in Akiak tests positive for the coronavirus, the village would lock down then. He added that the tribal council would likely wait until the village’s first positive case to decide if they would make that information public to other villages. 

“If we decide to go public, then we will,” Williams Sr. said. “As of now, we want to keep it private.”

Asked why, Williams Sr. said that the tribal council had not discussed the issue. 

Kongiginak has also not given YKHC permission to publicly announce if COVID-19 cases arise there. Tribal Council President Joseph Joseph said that the council members discussed the issue, but did not come to a conclusion.

“You know, there’s always opposition,” Joseph said.

He said that some council members were concerned about the privacy of an individual that tests positive. Although YKHC does not name the individual that tests positive, only the community that person resides in, Joseph said that many people would likely find out who it was.

“Your cousin from the next village is gonna call, ‘Who’s got COVID? You know who’s got COVID?’” Joseph said.

Despite that concern, Joseph said that he is personally in favor of signing the consent form.

“You know why I’d be happy to sign that consent form? It’ll keep everybody else away,” Joseph said.

Joseph said that he believes publicly announcing when a village has a COVID-19 case would help protect people in neighboring communities, but he said that he could not make that decision on his own. He said that Kongiginak’s tribal council will meet with board members of other village organizations to try to come to a consensus.