Six more patients test positive for COVID-19, three in villages
Norton Sound Health Corporation reported six new cases of COVID-19 in the past week, the largest spike since the beginning of the pandemic. Particularly concerning have been cases in two villages, where lack of infrastructure and access to advanced healthcare make communities especially susceptible to the virus.
The first three positive cases this week were discovered on Thursday, July 9. Two patients, one a regional resident and the other a visitor, had recently arrived in Nome together, and they began isolating soon after arrival. Another patient tested positive in Teller, the second positive case in the village.
On Friday, July 10, an NSHC employee in Nome tested positive and began isolating. The next day, July 11, another case was reported in Teller. Although the investigation is still ongoing, the second Teller case this week is believed to be the result of community spread, according to NSHC Medical Director Mark Peterson.
On Monday, July 13, the week’s sixth case was reported from an unidentified village other than Teller. Large-scale testing has begun in both Teller and the other village, and NSHC hopes to get everyone in those villages tested as soon as possible. So far, no other positive cases have been identified in that unidentified community.
The increase in cases is especially concerning in the villages, Peterson said, because of the difficulty of isolation, quarantine and preventative measures like hand washing.
NSHC is working with village leaders to identify quarantine housing in every village, so that COVID-19 patients can self-isolate and prevent community spread. While such housing has been identified in most villages, Peterson said, overcrowding has made it impossible to find empty housing in some communities. Teller is one of the villages with no quarantine housing available, and COVID-19 patients who cannot self-isolate in their own homes have been sent to isolation housing in Nome. Teller also lacks running water in most households, and while the NSHC clinic there has adequate sanitation, the difficulty of hand washing at home would add further complications in the event of an outbreak.
“That’s again one of the reasons we’d like the quarantine and the testing to continue,” Peterson said. “Many of our constituents don’t have proper sanitation and don’t have proper housing and we need to protect them, and the quarantine is an extra layer with which to do that.”
Heeding the recommendations from NSHC health professionals, the Nome Common Council voted on Monday night to extend the emergency order that gives City Manager Glenn Steckman powers to swiftly deal with emergencies. One of the emergency orders Steckman passed and was ratified by the Council is a travel form that requires new arrivals to Nome to quarantine for at least seven days and test on arrival day and the seventh day of quarantine. Peterson praised the decision, citing the quarantine order as one of the main reasons case numbers in the region have been relatively low.
He also recommended that villages maintain their existing travel restrictions, and that people continue wearing masks in public places, especially indoors. While the Nome Common Council has made no move to require masks, Anchorage released an emergency order requiring masks in indoor public spaces in late June, as have a number of other major cities in the U.S. “We would support the city if the city moved to require masks in public places,” Peterson said. “Norton Sound feels like that would be a good idea.”
The rise in regional cases has been paralleled by a rise in cases statewide, with 116 new cases on Sunday alone, the greatest daily increase in Alaska so far. Despite the alarming case numbers, Peterson said the state healthcare system is still well-equipped to handle the spike, with over 80 ICU beds and 250 ventilators available statewide. At Norton Sound Regional Hospital, he said there were 11 ventilators and 18 ICU beds, with the ability to bring the number of beds up to 30 in an emergency situation. Currently only one Alaskan patient is on a ventilator.
Peterson attributed the relative lack of severe illness in the region and across the state to a number of factors. More widespread testing – Alaska has the fifth most testing per capita of any state – allows public health officials to keep track of asymptomatic cases that would have previously gone undetected. Most new cases are also in the 20 to 29 age group, followed by 30 to 39, followed by 40 to 49, and the fact that so many new cases are in younger age groups also contributes to the lower rates of severe illness, he said.
However, he maintained that recent spikes in case numbers were still concerning. “There’s always a delay between cases and hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “So time will tell.” According to the Department of Health and Social Services, Alaska has had cumulative 1,579 cases, including 320 nonresidents, and 920 of those cases are still active. 642 people have recovered, 92 have been hospitalized, and 17 have died.
The Nome region has as of press time on Tuesday, 18 confirmed cases, with 11 recovered and seven active cases.