Napaskiak residents asked to shelter in place after COVID-19 case identified

A 1998 aerial view of Napaskiak from the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Photo Library

For the first time, there are indications of community spread of the coronavirus occurring in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced Thursday that it “believes there is a strong likelihood of community spread” of COVID-19 in Napaskiak, a village of about 400 people.

A Napaskiak resident initially tested positive for the virus last week.

At that time Napaskiak went into lockdown, shutting down all inter-village travel, except for essential needs. A team from YKHC traveled to the nearby village to conduct widespread testing. Napaskiak Tribal Administrator Sharon Williams said that round of testing identified an additional case.

“From the tests on June 16, someone was positive,” Williams said.

YKHC said that the most recent case is a Bethel resident who was in Napaskiak. Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges said that the individual had not traveled outside of the region recently, nor were they a close contact of the first Napaskiak resident who tested positive, which is why Hodges says that there is likely community spread.

“For community spread, what we mean is we’re not sure how or when they became infected,” Hodges said.

Asked whether the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has hit a new level of severity in the COVID-19 pandemic, Hodges said that it has always been serious.

“This disease is unpredictable,” Hodges said. “There are people who are healthy, who have no chronic medical conditions, who become severely ill and die. And there are, of course, our elderly who are quite vulnerable, who can become severely ill and die. And so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us as a community to contribute to the control of this outbreak.”

Napaskiak officials are mandating face masks in public places. Williams says that the bingo hall and the church are closed. She says that non-residents are asked to stay away from the village, and residents are asked to stay in their home except for essential needs like food and gas. Williams says that fishing is another essential need.

“All subsistence activities are allowed,” Williams said.

Hodges says that fishing, since it is outdoors, should be okay, even while Napaskiak is mostly sheltering in place.

“As long as people can maintain social distance from people not in their household, wear masks if they have to interact with other people,” Hodges said.

The village will also allow an exception to its lockdown when non-residents head to Napasiak for the burial of Jerry Evan, an Alaska State Trooper who died on June 20. The service will be outdoors with close friends and family members, and everyone will be encouraged to wear a mask.

A YKHC medical provider will be in Napaskiak through Wednesday to provide medical support, and to screen and test people showing symptoms of COVID-19. Residents who are not showing symptoms can get tested for the virus over the weekend, without an appointment.

Williams says that she hopes that 100% of the village gets tested this time.

YKHC is also offering free COVID-19 testing in Bethel next week to anyone who is concerned about possible exposure to the virus.

Although the state has reopened most of the economy, YKHC has continued to urge people to follow basic precautions to keep the disease from spreading in the community: avoid non-essential travel, wash hands, social distance, wear a mask in public and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.

Symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea and a diminished sense of taste or smell.

Hodges says that with the number of coronavirus cases growing in the region, people in every village and community should continue to wear masks, wash their hands often, and maintain a small social circle.

“If you can’t name the number of people that you’ve been with in the past 14 days, then you’re around too many people,” Hodges said.

Hodges said that the actions of one person cannot control this virus, but the entire Y-K Delta community should work together to try to prevent a larger outbreak.