The head of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation says that it’s time to put more teeth in the area’s COVID-19 prevention measures, and he says that both the state and the city have the power to do it. Dan Winkelman, the Chief Executive Officer and President of YKHC, says that the state and city should mandate COVID-19 testing for both state workers and private employees traveling into bush communities.
He pointed to recent virus outbreaks in the Bethel jail and courthouse, and the positive test of a Grant Aviation pilot as examples of exposures that could have been avoided with adequate testing when people arrive in the region, or before they come.
“We want [outside workers] to be doing their jobs, but we don’t want them to bring community spread or actually bring positive cases into a region where there is no active community spread right now,” explained Winkelman. “I do not think the state has a mandatory testing program. They need one, and it’s simple. We already have the solution. It’s already in place. All the state has to do is require that. We will do the testing for free at the Bethel airport.”
Winkelman said that only half of the Alaska Airlines passengers flying into Bethel get tested at the airport, even though the service is free. To date, some employers don’t routinely require the testing, and last week’s positive testing of a Grant Aviation pilot underscored how Grant’s rule allowing a pilot based in Anchorage to come into the region to fly passengers between various communities can expose numerous people. Winkelman said that even the five cases found at the Bethel jail and courthouse are a challenge to track down.
“Those five cases, they’ll generate, like, a hundred close contacts. Just five cases. To figure that out, our contact tracers, they have to make hundreds of phone calls to other people, and then we narrow it down to who the close contacts are. You can have anywhere from eight to 30 close contacts per person for one positive case, so you can see how our limited medical infrastructure can get overwhelmed.
Winkelman says that YKHC has managed to meet the region's needs so far, and the corporation is using CARES Act funding to hire 60 more staff to help. He says that the real solution is to keep the virus from arriving in a large enough number of cases to create community spread, and he says that government needs to step up its game. He wants both state and local mandates enacted to require testing and quarantine.
YKHC had previously asked the Bethel City Council to impose testing requirements and quarantine for people coming into the region, but the city attorney said that a second class city like Bethel didn't have the legal authority to do that. Winkelman said that attorneys that YKHC consulted disagree. They point to differences between cities in organized boroughs and outside of them, and to the governor’s decision to delegate the health response to local communities. Basically, it comes down to leadership, said Winkleman, and local political bodies need to act to protect people even when the law is ambiguous.
“Let’s say a court says 'No, you don’t have the power to do that.' Okay, so we end the program. It’s not mandatory anymore. At least we tried, and we acted ahead of time to prevent this from happening here in Bethel. We might try and fail, but that’s what leadership’s about. It’s about acting and trying to do something positive for the community,” Winkelman said.
Winkelman recommends that the city council hold a public hearing on an ordinance to mandate testing and quarantine requirements on everyone coming into Bethel from outside of the region. YKHC continues to offer free testing at the Bethel airport.