Western Alaska village puts up vaccine requirement to enter store

A green field and a red building
Kongiganak, Alaska in 2004. (Credit Department of Commerce Community Photo Database)

COVID-19 vaccine passports are gaining some traction within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Around the same time the Bethel fitness center reopened to fully vaccinated individuals, Kongiganak started allowing only fully vaccinated community members into stores and businesses.

Up until a month ago, the Kongiganak store only accepted orders over the phone, because of COVID-19 policies set by the tribal government. Store employees would then deliver groceries to people’s homes. But in the first week of March, the tribe updated its policy, allowing fully vaccinated people into stores and other businesses such as the electric company. 

“At both stores, vaccinated individuals are allowed to go in as long as they’re wearing a mask and they’re social distancing,” said Sheila Phillip, Kongiganak Traditional Council secretary. “People that are not fully vaccinated, they can still make phone orders and their orders are delivered to their home.” 

Harvey Paul, general manager for Qemirtalek Coast Corporation, said his store is only allowing four people in at a time. Paul said his employees verify a customer is good to enter by checking their name on a list of vaccinated individuals provided by the tribe.

“Every couple of days, they’ll give us a new list,” Paul said. “The list keeps getting bigger and bigger. That’s a good sign, you know?”

On April 9, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation published a weekly report saying 50% of Kongiganak residents eligible for COVID-19 vaccines had received one. Just a week before that, less than 40% of eligible Kongiganak residents had been vaccinated.

Paul believes allowing vaccinated people to shop in person is helping increase vaccination rates in Kongiganak.

“It gives them the incentive, ‘Hey look, I better get vaccinated too so I can go to the store,’” Paul said. “The best way to curb this virus is to get vaccinated.”

Bethel and other Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages are allowing people to enter stores in person even if they aren’t vaccinated. Phillip, the tribal council secretary, said Kongiganak has taken stronger precautions because over a third of the village has contracted the virus, and two locals died from it.

“Our whole community was just devastated by the first death,” Phillip said. “And with that in mind, we tried to be as strict as we could for as long as we could.”

Kongiganak has not recorded a new COVID-19 case since April 1. If that trend continues, Phillip said, the village will open up stores to unvaccinated people as well. For now, she said that the vaccine passport is a way to start reopening businesses in a safe manner.

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