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Coffee@KYUK, May 19: Rapid Testing and Response Halts Potential for Spread in COVID Case

YKHC Nurse Kerry Cobbledick hands out swabs at a station set up for coronavirus testing outside of the Alaska Airlines airport terminal in Bethel, Alaska.
Katie Basile

Health officials sprang into action Friday when the second case of COVID-19 was discovered by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation through its airport testing, offered free to those flying into Bethel. This was the first case in a village.



When the person was tested again a couple of days later, in Nunapitchuk, the test came up negative. Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges says the rapid tests YKHC is using are extremely accurate compared to other testing systems.


“So, we have every confidence that the Avid-IVNow tests we do in the village were accurate and that this particular individual is in all likelihood, no longer infectious,” Dr. Hodges said.


When the patients initial test results came back positive, YKHC contacted airlines and activated its village response team, sending doctors, nurses and others to Nunapitchuk to conduct contact tracing. In the village, they tested 307 people, all of whom came up negative for COVID-19. Many in the village are now undergoing quarantine. Hodges says they are waiting for the results to be confirmed by state laboratories.


The first and only other case that was reported in the region was a Bethel resident traveling in from Anchorage in April. That person, according to Mitchell Forbes, spokesperson for YKHC, has recovered.  He says the region’s health professionals are confident there is currently no “community spread” in Bethel and the outlying villages.


“We very confident that we don’t have community-based transmission in Bethel or any of our surrounding villages. Passengers coming through from Anchorage is perhaps one of the biggest ways we’re going to find new cases coming into the region. It’s so important for everyone to opt to get tested,” Forbes said.


Meanwhile the corporation continues to offer free tests to those arriving in Bethel at the airport though less than half the passengers take the tests. But the tests are voluntary and Vice President of Hospital Service Jim Sweeney says there is no way YKHC can force people to take the test.


“Doing a mandate that would force people to be tested would have to come from the state or federal government. That is well beyond the scope of our ability to influence,” Sweeney said.


The best method for slowing the spread of the pandemic remains social distancing, and Dr. Hodges says this needs to be practiced for some time to come. She says, YKHC will continue to do what it can to prevent the disease from spreading, but everyone in the community needs to do their part…and keep doing it.


“This case highlights really the importance to Y-K Delta residents to continue practicing our protective measures. This includes physically distancing from anyone not residing in your same households and this includes riding on a four-wheeler or playing with children in other family households. Regular hand washing or disinfecting with an alcohol base solution, wear a face covering in public, and regularly disinfecting the high-touch areas in your home,” Dr. Hodges said.


YKHC officials emphasized that because of patient privacy issues, they did NOT provide information about the identity of the patient, or the village where they lived. The name of the village came from other sources.

Katie Basile is an independent photographer and multimedia storyteller from Bethel, Alaska.
Johanna Eurich's vivid broadcast productions have been widely heard on National Public Radio since 1978. She spent her childhood speaking Thai, then learned English as a teenager and was educated at a dance academy, boarding schools and with leading intellectuals at her grandparents' dinner table in Philadelphia.