COVID cases remain high in the region
By Julia Lerner
COVID-19 cases in Nome are slowly beginning to decrease, but several villages see a rise in infections, according to the Norton Sound Health Corporation. In the last week, NSHC has identified 203 new COVID-19 cases regionwide,
As of Tuesday afternoon, there are 97 active cases in Savoonga, 65 in Nome, 14 in Unalakleet, 12 in Gambell, nine in Elim, three in Brevig Mission and one in St. Michael.
On Tuesday, November 2, NSHC identified 29 positive cases in the region, including 13 in Savoonga, six in Nome, four in Gambell, three in Elim, two in Unalakleet, and one in Brevig Mission.
NSHC identified 44 new cases on Wednesday, November 3. Of the new cases, 35 were in Savoonga, six were in Nome, one was in Unalakleet, and two were NSHC employees, though the two employees had no interactions with patients.
On Thursday, November 4, 21 people tested positive for the virus, including 13 in Savoonga, four in Nome, three in Gambell, and one in Brevig Mission.
Between Friday, November 5 and Sunday, November 7, 90 patients tested positive around the region, including 55 in Savoonga, 18 in Nome, 11 in Unalakleet, four in Elim, and two in Brevig Mission.
NSHC identified 19 additional cases on Monday, November 8. Of the new cases, 11 are in Nome, four are in Savoonga, two are in Gambell, one is in Elim and one is in St. Michael.
“There’s a lot of testing going on [in Savoonga],” according to NSHC CEO Angie Gorn. “They are actually doing door-to-door testing to try to identify as much COVID as possible,” she explained during Monday’s COVID-19 conference call with village leadership.
Currently, there are almost 100 COVID-19 cases in Savoonga, with hundreds more in quarantine following close-contact with a positive case. The community, a village of 835 people according to the most recent U.S. Census, has limited housing availability and limited space to properly quarantine or isolate following a close contact.
“Savoonga has many, many people, maybe 500 or 600 people, in quarantine,” according to NSHC medical director Dr. Mark Peterson. “Those people are going to get tested every few days and we expect maybe 30 percent of those people to turn positive. It’s going to be a while before the total number of active cases in Savoonga starts to really come down.”
Over the weekend, the Bering Strait School District hosted the annual wrestling and cheerleading tournament in Unalakleet. Since then, several attendees have tested positive for COVID-19, though Peterson says the spread has been minimal.
“There were several cases related to that wrestling tournament, unfortunately,” Peterson said. “They did some testing while there as part of the BSSD requirements, and when the testing happened, there were four individuals related to those teams that did test positive.”
The individuals who tested positive in Unalakleet will quarantine in the village for ten days, and close contacts will isolate in their home community. Peterson says NSHC is currently working to identify close contacts of the positive cases.
“People don’t need to be concerned,” he said. “If you weren’t wrestling somebody who had a positive COVID test, your chance of getting COVID is pretty slim. If you weren’t sleeping in the same hotel room as them or something, your risk is pretty small.”
“Definitely cases in Nome are coming down,” Peterson explained during the weekly COVID-19 conference call. “There’s a trend down and we’re not seeing as many daily cases.”
Though cases are starting to trend down in the region, as well as across the state, Alaska remains at the top of the chart nationwide for new cases per 100,000 people, according to NSHC.
Vaccines for ages 5-11
Peterson remains enthusiastic about the downward trend, especially as vaccination rates rise with the arrival of the childhood COVID-19 vaccination.
“The big news is that we have the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5 to 11 in Nome,” he said. “The vaccine is going out this week to different villages, and the local team in each village clinic will let the community know what they have available, and we’ll be reaching out to all those kids 5-11 to get them vaccinated.”
While Nome received their childhood vaccine shipment last week, Diomede and several other villages received their shipment Monday, and other villages should expect to receive their vaccinations later in the week.
“We’re just so happy and excited to get to this point where my son was excited to get his first dose last week,” one parent said during the weekly COVID-19 conference call. “My son plays hockey and is really excited to have the vaccine for extra protection from COVID.” The parent went on to reference the heartbreak nurses and doctors are seeing across Alaska as younger, unvaccinated populations are hospitalized with the virus.
“Nurses talk about the heartbreaking thing: a lot of young people fighting for air with full flow oxygen at the hospital and begging for the vaccination and [the nurses] have to tell them ‘Well, it’s too late,’” the parent said. “It’s heartbreaking for them to have people in the hospital begging for the vaccine when it’s too late.”
NSHC public relations manager Reba Lean said in the first few days when the vaccine was available to 5-11-year-olds in Nome, NSHC saw dozens of children being inoculated. “Village vaccinations are just being rolled out,” she said.
Childhood vaccines are available by appointment or for walk-ins at the Norton Sound pharmacy in Nome.
Alaska sues feds
Last week, the state of Alaska signed on to a lawsuit against the federal government over the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees.
“President Biden’s attempt to force vaccination is, at the root of it, unamerican,” said Governor Mike Dunleavy in a press release. “These mandates cause division at a time where we need to work together. Forced medical decisions are counterintuitive – destroying America’s sense of fairness and liberty. My administration will continue to fight against these mandates to protect the inherent individual rights of all Alaskans. Medical choice is an individual American freedom.”
The mandate is currently on hold while the courts hear legal arguments for it.
Several organizations in the region have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for employees, including Norton Sound and Kawerak, Inc. Others, including the Nome Public School District and the City of Nome, have not, though the City of Nome is in the process of creating a testing mandate for unvaccinated employees.
Peterson faced several questions regarding the treatment of patients fighting COVID-19 at Norton Sound during the weekly conference call. Several callers requested information about the hospital’s protocols, and if the hospital was using hydroxychloroquine or vitamins to treat COVID-19.
Hydroxychloroquine, an immunosuppressive drug, is used to treat and prevent malaria, as well as lupus and arthritis, though has not been proven to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“We follow the FDA and CDC recommendations, the same protocol that every hospital does across the country,” Peterson said. “There’s not a protocol right now for hydroxychloroquine or vitamins specifically. … Vitamins don’t kill the virus. Hydroxychloroquine, unfortunately, does not kill the virus.”
Misinformation about COVID-19 “cures” has spread rapidly across social media, limiting the availability of medications like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, a horse deworming medication, for those who really need them. Peterson says the hospital does not use either for the treatment of COVID-19.
Across Alaska, there have been a total of 143,848 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including 3,280 in the last week. In the state, there have been 3,125 hospitalizations, with 131 patients currently hospitalized and 20 on ventilators. Around the state, 29 ICU beds remain available. In Alaska, 822 individuals have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020.
In Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region, there have been 1,756 cases of COVID-19, 21 hospitalizations and two deaths.