With quarter of population vaccinated, COVID-19 cases in Southwest Alaska on decline

A health worker in a blue gown swabs travelers waiting in line outside the bethel airport
YKHC COVID-19 nurse James Nation tests incoming passengers at the airport on Oct. 29, 2020. Bethel, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The number of coronavirus cases in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are dropping, and the number of people receiving the vaccine is rising. As of Feb. 7, 28.6% of the region’s population and 36.7% of Bethel had received a vaccine, more than three times the national rate, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ellen Hodges, Chief of Staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said cases in the region fell by 36% since mid-January. She attributed the decline to two main factors.

“Our bump or increase that we saw post-holiday get-togethers is getting over, so we’re going down,” Hodges said.

Meanwhile, the number of people getting vaccinated is going up. Over a quarter of the region’s total population has been vaccinated. In some villages, Hodges says, almost 80% of the eligible population has received a vaccine.

“It’s remarkable to me that we’ve been able to achieve that,” Hodges said.

For about five months, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region had the highest coronavirus case rate in the state, and one of the highest in the nation. Since Jan. 8, COVID-19 cases fell from 81 to 79 cases per 100,000 people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In Bethel, rates sank from 305 to 56 cases per 100,000 people.

As of Feb. 7, 7,470 in the region people had received one dose of the vaccine, and 4,020 people had received two.

But there’s still have a long way to go to get to a safe place with the virus.

While the vaccine is available to everyone age 16 and older, a lot of people in the region are younger. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2019, over a third of the region’s population is below 16.

And health experts said cases could continue falling as more people receive the vaccine, warning that a vaccine does’t guarantee protection. People who receive their shots still need to take safety precautions such as wearing masks and gathering indoors only with household members.

Hodges said some people who have been vaccinated in the region later tested positive for the coronavirus. The vaccine is 95% effective, meaning about 1 in 20 people will still get infected after vaccination — but their symptoms are far milder.  

“Those people, generally speaking, have been very minimally (affected) or are asymptomatic, which is really good news,” Hodges said. “That’s one of the best things about the vaccine: it is very effective against severe disease.”

Hodges encourages everyone in the region to sign up with YKHC to be vaccinated using through the corporation website.

“The more people who are vaccinated, the faster we can have a return to our normal life and get our kids back in school,” Hodges said. “And we can start doing the things that we want to do, like go to the gym and visit our loved ones.”

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.