Cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Health professionals like Dan Winkelman, President and CEO of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, say that the region needs to lock down for a month to keep local health care facilities from being overwhelmed.
If the region and the state are overwhelmed, care will have to be rationed. That’s called “crisis care,” and that means that more people could die without the health care that could help them survive.
“We don’t want to get it to crisis care. So how do we not do that and avoid that? We prevent it,” said Winkelman. “And the ways to prevent it are pretty simple. We’ve been trying to educate the public on that since springtime. And it really doesn’t hit home until you have someone in your family, or a loved one, or a friend that tests positive, and then they not necessarily do well. And they don’t get over the illness in 10 days like most people are getting over it, and having a hard time with it. And when that happens or until that happens, a lot of people are kind of 'ho-humming’ about it, go about their lives. Yeah, they’ll put a mask on. You know they’ll still visit with folks after work or go hang out in other households. That’s the problem right there, because that’s exactly how it’s spreading.”
Even workplaces where staff and customers or clients have been wearing masks can be spreading the disease. YKHC’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Ellen Hodges, points to break rooms as a major culprit.
“People are pretty good if they are with a client or if they are with a patient, but they are going into break rooms and they’re socializing after work,” said Hodges. “So when a person ends up positive and you’re very diligent about keeping the people that you serve safe, but then you socialize together in a break room or you socialize together outside of work. And we’ve been noticing that transmission has been happening there.”
Winkelman said that it’s already getting tougher to transfer COVID-19 cases to other hospitals in the state when they need care that the Bethel hospital can’t provide. He said that during the week of Nov. 9, they had to hold patients that needed transferring to intensive care units. At first the instances of these delays were few and far between, but now they have increased.
“Last week, for instance, there were four instances where that happened. So if you looked at that for the last three or four weeks, that has been increasing,” Winkelman said.
The Bethel hospital’s staff is also being forced to stay home because of COVID-19, despite taking precautions. Hodges said that some staff are having to quarantine because a family member or acquaintance got the virus. To slow the surge in cases down will take a month-long lockdown, said Hodges, and even then, it could be close to another month before they know whether it was effective.
“It could take up to a month, I would think, to fully realize the benefits of a lockdown after it’s over," said Hodges. "What we would hope to see is a significant decrease in the rate of infection and the number of new households that we’re adding every day for outbreaks across Bethel and across the region. I can’t emphasize enough that everyone has to take this seriously. Everyone has to do it.”
One of the difficulties with the coronavirus is that many people catch COVID-19, but it has little effect on them. For most it’s only a mild illness. Those who get ill enough to die are usually older, but not everyone. On Nov. 16, a person in their 30's from the Y-K Delta died from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 can be deadly for people of any age. And I don’t want people to feel safe because they feel like they are young and healthy. This disease has been known to strike down those of us who are young as well as those who are elderly,” said Hodges.
Statistics indicate that two in three Alaskans have underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. The entire “Coffee at KYUK” conversation with Hodges and Winkelman can be heard on the KYUK website.