COVID-19 vaccine passports are gaining some traction within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Around the same time that the Bethel fitness center reopened to fully vaccinated individuals, Kongiganak started allowing only fully vaccinated people into stores and businesses.
Up until a month ago, the Kongiganak store only accepted orders over the phone, and store employees would then deliver the orders to people’s homes. This was because of COVID-19 policies the tribe had set. In the first week of March, the tribe updated its policy to allow fully vaccinated people into stores and other businesses, like 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.”
The general manager for Qemirtalek Coast Corporation, Harvey Paul, said that his store is only allowing four people in at a time. Paul said that his employees verify that a customer is vaccinated by checking that their name is on a list of vaccinated individuals that they get from 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 that 50% of Kongiganak residents that were eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine had received one. Just a week before that, less than 40% of eligible Kongiganak residents had been vaccinated.
Paul believes that allowing vaccinated people to shop in person is helping to increase the 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 that Kongiganak has taken stronger precautions because over a third of the village has contracted the virus, and two people who lived there 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. Phillip said that if that trend continues, 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.