How the Y-K Delta became one of the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination leaders

A snowy road
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region is leading the nation in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. In Bethel, community members can even receive a vaccine at the grocery store. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta once led the nation in COVID-19 case rates. But now, in a startling reversal, cases are dropping and the region is now helping lead the nation in vaccinations.

It’s possible Bethel is the only place in the U.S. where you can go to the store to pick up dinner and get a COVID-19 vaccine, no appointment needed.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is offering vaccines at both the AC and Swanson’s grocery stores.

“I wasn’t even sure if it would work out logistically, or if people would even want that,” Dr. Ellen Hodges, YKHC Chief of Staff, said.

But it has worked. YKHC has offered flu vaccines in these stores before. Now, people are rolling up their sleeves for the COVID-19 vaccine right next to where they would buy household goods. The goal is to remove barriers and reach people who don’t want to go to the hospital, or don’t have the transportation to get there. YKHC is also making home vaccination visits.

“Especially if they’re a home-bound Elder, or they’re caring for a home-bound Elder who might be vaccinated and there’s other people in the home who need to be vaccinated,” Hodges said.

As vaccinations have increased, cases have dropped. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s case rate is 23 cases per 100,000 people. It was 12.5 times higher at its peak, when the case rate hit 300 cases per 100,000 people in November 2020.

More than three times as many people in the region have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine compared to the rest of the nation. That means 20% of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta population is fully vaccinated, compared to just 5.9% of the U.S. population, according to data from the YKHC and the Centers for Disease Control.

YKHC is also distributing the vaccine across the region. While much of the U.S. struggled to develop systems to disseminate the vaccine, the tribal health corporation already had one.

“We had the groundwork in place,” Hodges said. “We have been distributing vaccines to rural clinics for decades.”

Over those decades, YKHC had created the infrastructure needed to deploy a vaccine quickly and widely— before the pandemic began.

“To keep inventory straight, to get it shipped out, get people vaccinated, and get that information quickly back into the record,” Hodges said.

And YKHC had staff willing to do it.

“Hundreds of phone calls. Maybe at this point hundreds of flights out to do this,” Hodges said. “So just a very, very dedicated team of professionals.”

YKHC received a large volume of vaccine early in the pandemic, from the Indian Health Service and the state. That enabled the corporation to accelerate vaccinations across the region. In mid-January, it became one of the first places in the nation to open vaccine access to the general population, allowing everyone 16 and older to get inoculated.

In mid-February, once the health corporation made it to Red Devil and Lime Village, located in the easternmost reaches of the region, every community in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta had received vaccines.

Now, almost half of the region’s eligible population has received one dose of the vaccine, and a third have received two doses. That’s a higher vaccination percentage than the state or the nation.

But it’s not high enough: Hodges wants 100% of the eligible population vaccinated, especially before any more contagious variants reach the YK Delta. Already, variants identified in the United Kingdom and in Brazil have been detected in Alaska.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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