After COVID-19 closes post offices for weeks, Western Alaskans suffer critical mail delays

The village of Pilot Station
Pilot Station in 2004. (Alaska Department of Commerce)

After employees contracted COVID-19, post offices in Kwethluk and Pilot Station have been closed for weeks, threatening the health of Y-K Delta residents.

As of Dec. 3, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced 323 cases of COVID-19 in Kwethluk, a village of 700-800 people. That included the employees of the post office. Kwethluk Administrative Assistant Lillian Michael said the post office had been closed for almost two weeks since workers were self-isolated.

“It’s negatively affecting everybody,” said Ana Kelila, who lives in Kwethluk. “That’s the only way we can get anything around this time because, you know, the rivers freezing and all this pandemic stuff going on.”

In the summer and late winter, Kwethluk residents travel to Bethel by boat and snow machine to obtain supplies. But before the river is fully frozen, at a time when most communities are discouraging or restricting travel, Kelila said that isn’t possible.

One of her biggest concerns are the elders in her community.

“Elders get their checks in the mail. That’s the biggest thing,” she said. “They don’t have any money to get what they need because most elders don’t have bank accounts. They still do stuff the old fashioned way with checks.”

And residents also need their mail to stay healthy.

Elia Epchook Jr. is recovering from back-to-back bouts of strep throat and COVID-19. He’s waiting on a shipment of antibiotics and an inhaler to treat his throat. In the meantime, he’s doing as his ancestors did.

“I’ve been using traditional ecological knowledge on medicine craft,” Epchook said. “My uncle had given me some pine needles. I used that to inhale the evaporating boiling pine needles.”

Epchook said the traditional remedies are working. If they hadn’t, he said that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is able to send medications directly to the health clinic.

But for others, that’s not an option.

The Pilot Station post office was also closed for around two weeks because employees contracted COVID-19. Brian Stephanoff, who lives in the village, said he had ordered a refill for his son’s asthma medication that was stuck at the post office for weeks.

“We were down to our last, last few pills,” Stephanoff said. “We had to try to stretch whatever medication we had.”

Stephanoff said he didn’t order another shipment to the village clinic because he wasn’t sure it would arrive before the post office would open: A medevac to Pilot Station was recently delayed for days because of bad weather. And with so many COVID-19 cases in the village, he didn’t want to risk infection by going to the clinic.

“I got a little worried ‘cause I wasn’t sure what I would have to do,” Stephanoff said.

RELATED: Unable to reach hospital because of weather, Pilot station man dies of COVID-19

The Pilot Station post office opened back up earlier this week, but Stephanoff still hasn’t been able to get his son’s medication. He said the post office has only been passing out large packages to clear out space.

“After a couple of weeks all that mail backed up, and finally getting over here, it filled up all the way up to the front entrance area.”

He said he might ask the recovered post office employee to try to dig out the pills for his son.

KYUK wants to know how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the lives of residents in the Y-K Delta region. Email us your story at news@kyuk.org.