As Y-K Delta Preps For COVID-19, Public Health Nurses Gear Up To Help

Credit Dean Swope / KYUK

Public health nurses, or PHNs, are among the healthcare workers on the frontlines of disease and outbreaks in rural Alaska. With the coronavirus pandemic, PHNs are figuring out how to work with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and its health aides to battle the pandemic. At the same time, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is also experiencing an outbreak of tuberculosis.

Anchorage-based Public Health Nurse Donna Bean said on a KYUK talk show that the coronavirus outbreak means that the state section of public health nursing is reducing their travel to villages via plane. PHNs normally fly to rural communities to give vaccines and lend support to health aides.

"If you are on a plane out to rural villages, that’s close quarters and you can’t stay 4 to 6 feet away from each other," Bean said. 

So for now, PHNs are doing their jobs mostly by phone. People showing symptoms of tuberculosis or coronavirus in the Y-K Delta must call the Bethel office at 907-543-2110 instead of just walking in. Bean says that practice is to protect the health of the nurses and the public.

There are currently five public health nurses based in Bethel. Bean came in from Anchorage to help out with the tuberculosis outbreak in the region, and said that there are close to 100 cases of tuberculosis in the Y-K Delta right now. She says that tuberculosis and COVID-19 have a lot of similarities.

"Tuberculosis is something called aerosolized. So when you talk and sing there are really, really small particles, so you can spread that just like you can coronavirus," Bean said.

The main difference between the two is that tuberculosis is caused by bacteria and is treatable, but COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus and currently does not have a treatment or a vaccine. Bean says a person who has tuberculosis faces a higher health risk if they catch the coronavirus. Bean also says that the Y-K Delta has high rates of respiratory issues that make the population more vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak.

"We’ve got high rates of asthma, we've got RSV, and of course we’ve got tuberculosis, and these are all infections of the lung that can put people at risk for another lung infection," Bean said. 

Bean urges the public to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In particular, she says that physically distancing and going out as little as possible also keeps the health aides in the village from overworking and getting sick. Villages usually have only one or two health aides managing the village clinics, and they are always on call.

To listen to the whole conversation, you can go on and click on Wellness Wednesday.