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In Week Since First COVID-19 Case, YKHC Expands Testing, Receives More Medical Supplies

A COVID-19 test sample is collected from the drive-thru test site run by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation on April 14, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska.
Katie Basile

It’s been one week since the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the region. Since then, YKHC has more than doubled its testing. As of April 14, the health corporation had administered over 200 coronavirus tests in the region. All tests, except the one confirmed positive, have come back negative. About 30 test results are still pending.

YKHC believes that the person who tested positive contracted the virus while traveling outside the region. The organization says that person began self-isolating before the test result came back. When YKHC got the call on April 6 that someone in Bethel had tested positive for COVID-19, it began mobilizing, setting a plan into motion that had been strategized for weeks.

“It went very smoothly,” said YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges.

A team began calling everyone who they identified as having been within less than 6 feet of the person who tested positive for five to 10 minutes.

“We were able to contact the majority of them within the first six hours of getting that call,” said Hodges.

The people contacted were asked to isolate at home for 14 days from the date of possible exposure. They were also asked to get tested for COVID-19. Since then, Hodges says that the “vast majority” have. YKHC has made daily calls to each of them.

“They’re asked about symptoms; they’re asked about how they’re doing in their quarantine; and they’re asked if they need anything,” Hodges explained.

Some people are isolating along with their household members. Others are isolating in a separate part of their home, depending on the number of people in the house and their ability to isolate away from others.

Since confirming that first case, YKHC has increased its COVID-19 testing capacity. On April 7, the Alaska Native Health Consortium sent YKHC four rapid test machines that produce same-day results. Each machine came with 60 tests, and some of those tests have to be used to run daily quality control tests. YKHC’s other tests take up to a week to get results because the samples have to be sent outside the region. The same-day testing machines will be used in Bethel and some sub-regional clinics for use on cases that require immediate results.

“So a good example might be an elderly person in a group setting, where it would be really important to know right away whether they’re positive or negative,” Hodges explained.

Hodges said that ANTHC may be able to offer YKHC more rapid tests, but these tests are in short supply nationwide. She also said that YKHC could possibly receive four more rapid test machines and accompanying tests from the Indian Health Service.

YKHC has also expanded its testing criteria. It will now test anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at the discretion of a health care provider. YKHC is not testing people who do not show symptoms, but people without symptoms can transmit the virus.

Also within the past week, YKHC received medical supplies from the Christian evangelical disaster relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, which donated hospital beds, disposable coveralls, patient gowns, surgical masks, and N95 masks.

As YKHC’s testing capacity and medical supplies have expanded over the past week, its ability to transport these materials and patients has contracted. With Ravn Air gone, and other airlines abbreviating their schedules, YKHC is looking to alternatives to move materials and people.

“So our travel management office has basically turned into a dispatcher for the region,” Hodges described.

Village clinics require regular restocking, and the supply list has grown with the virus response. Also, patients need prescription medication refills. Commercial cargo flights are covering these supply and medication shipments. But to transport patients, YKHC has had to turn to charters. Interim Public Relations Director Mitchell Forbes called this option “not a sustainable long-term solution.” One-way charters can cost up to $2,000.

Hodges stressed that YKHC’s ability to respond to COVID-19 depends on how many people in the region get infected at once. She remindes everyone that we all have a role in flattening the infection curve by social distancing, not visiting with other households, washing hands, wearing face coverings in public, and disinfecting highly touched surfaces.

Update: This story has been updated with the number of COVID-19 tests conducted by YKHC as of April 14, 2020. The story originally reported numbers from April 13, 2020.

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
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