Diomede demonstrates resilience dealing with COVID-19
The village of Little Diomede, located less than three miles from the dateline and the border to Russia on a tiny island in the Bering Strait, ranks as one of the most remote settlements in the United States. Even its extreme isolation, though, could not keep it safe from the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe.
Diomede’s first documented case of the virus came on August 16, with two more cases being detected on August 21. While life on the island has certainly changed, patience, vigilance and a strong sense of community are keeping people going.
“We’re very careful and concerned, and very aware of what’s going on,” said Robert Soolook, a lifelong resident of the village, who once served as tribal president. He said as soon as the pandemic started, Diomede instituted a strict quarantine policy for new arrivals.
Controlling entry and exit is easy when people only come and go once a week. The island is too steep and small for an airplane runway, leaving Diomede only accessible by a weekly-scheduled helicopter flight. The helicopter leaves from the hub in Nome, goes to Wales and on to Diomede. Passenger service is scheduled for Mondays, and mail and freight are delivered per helicopter on Wednesdays.
“We’re very aware of who comes in and who comes out of Diomede,” Soolook said. And yet the virus still managed to get in, through a Diomede resident who was in contact with a patient in Nome, who in turn had traveled from Anchorage. The subsequent two cases were in the same household as the first one.
Life changed most drastically after the first positive case, Soolook said. The Native store, where residents buy most basic supplies, began only allowing one customer inside at a time. Masks and six-foot social distancing became mandatory. Not having a piped water and sewer system, the residents do their laundry and shower at the village’s washeteria. Village leadership created a schedule for the washeteria, so that families only use it one at a time.
Two of the three patients have since recovered, and no new cases have appeared, largely thanks to the village’s remoteness. But while that isolation can help keep the virus away, it can also increase the danger once the virus inevitably gets there.
The Bering Strait’s notoriously stormy weather can prevent the helicopter from making the trip for weeks at a time, meaning no supplies get to the island and no passengers get out, including people that may need to be evacuated to the hospital in Nome.
“One time we had no helicopter service for almost a whole month and a half,” Soolook recalled. One of the biggest fears in Diomede is that someone will get seriously sick and be unable to get to a ventilator, especially during the months of unpredictable fall and severe winter weather.
“We live out here where services are even harder to receive,” said Frances Ozenna, the village’s tribal coordinator. “There are just a great many things that make it a little harder for Diomede, with transportation, with supplies, with services and medical care.”
She said the pandemic came in the middle of a big year for the village, with a lot of construction and improvements planned. Since June, workers have been coming in and out for electrical upgrades, a new Native store, a new clinic and a big beach cleanup and debris backhaul.
“Diomede had plans for the summer, before the pandemic, so we’re just working around it,” she said. Incoming workers have to test before leaving Nome and after arriving on the island. Most stay in the school building because of the lack of available housing.
Mike Gadbois, principal of Diomede’s school, said that some protocols would have to change once students started sharing the school with workers on September 14. But he was cautiously hopeful that it would go smoothly. The school building, built back when the village’s population was much larger, has more space than it needs.
“And we want to do everything we possibly can to get students back in our care for direct instruction,” Gadbois said. Having students taking classes in person is especially critical in Diomede. “Nearly no families in the village have internet that would support remote learning through technology,” he said.
The lack of adequate internet connection is just one infrastructural hurdle in a long list of systemic issues that have complicated Diomede’s response to the pandemic. Ozenna rattled off a series of longstanding issues that pandemic has made especially glaring.
“We don’t have running water, so that was one thing we were worried about – how are we going to continually wash hands?” she asked. Diomede’s water infrastructure was built in the 1950s, and residents rely on a communal washateria to do laundry, take showers and collect drinking water.
Most of the village’s water comes from rain catchments and snow runoff, but a broken-down water sanitation facility has resulted in E. coli and H. pylori infections in recent years. Diomede currently lacks a certified water plant operator, which makes repairs on the aging system difficult.
“Some people don’t have ovens or refrigerators or freezers, so how are they going to survive an outbreak if they are all stuck at home?” Ozenna said. Of the 35 inhabited homes in the village, 17 lack basic kitchens, making it hard for people to stay home and isolate if they become infected.
“A lot of homes are old, so they don’t have good ventilation systems. A lot of them are moldy, too,” she added. Poor ventilation is a common problem across rural Alaska and has been correlated with a higher risk of respiratory infection.
Ozenna also mentioned environmental problems that were cause for concern. In recent years, marine mammals that village residents rely on for food have been less common in Bering Strait waters. “Spring was a bad hunt this year, last year was a bad hunt year, and the year before that was, too,” she said.
In years past, Diomede was also more accessible in winter months because a runway could be built on the sea ice and planes could come in and out between January and May. But Ozenna said the last time a plane could arrive was in 2014 or 2015. Since then, the ice hasn’t been thick enough to build a runway, making the village even more isolated.
In the face of these serious challenges, though, Diomede’s leadership has been proactive in finding creative solutions. At the start of the pandemic, they used a grant from Norton Sound Health Corporation to buy 36 air purifiers and mitigate ventilation problems. They’ve also distributed hand sanitizer to all the homes and expanded delivery services for basic necessities like fuel.
Because many houses are overcrowded and the school building will be filled with students and traveling workers, the village’s leadership transformed their own tribal office into quarantine housing. One of the three patients did part of their isolation there, and Ozenna said that although tribal administrators have since moved back in, they’re ready to move out again if they need to.
A massive help has been the $490,000 allocated to the village by the federal CARES Act. Hattie Keller, a CARES administrator who has been helping Diomede and a number of other villages handle their funding, said that tribal leadership has allocated their money towards everything from food and fuel vouchers to ovens and refrigerators for the households that lack them.
But while a lot has been allocated, nothing has actually been spent because of the unclear rules governing how the funding can be used. “It’s weird because there’s no right or wrong way until the Inspector General audits the tribes,” Keller said. “And everything is always changing – from the beginning of this process to now, things have changed so much. It hasn’t been cut and dry.”
Another challenge, she said, was initial backlash against the tribe for how it planned to spend its CARES funds. “There was a lot of misinformation on Facebook,” she said. She emphasized that the intention of the funds is to prepare the community to deal with the pandemic, and she commended Diomede for focusing on infrastructure and helping their most vulnerable. Keller said Diomede’s leadership was smart and met with an accountant and a lawyer to put together a detailed budget of their planned spending in order to ensure they pass an audit. Keller said the plan is to start distributing the funds in the form of food and utility vouchers in September. Refrigerators and stoves for the households that lack them should also arrive before winter.
On top of the material challenges posed by the pandemic, Ozenna discussed cultural ones as well. “There’s a limited amount of community involvement,” she said. “We can’t have Eskimo dances anymore. We live here as family, so it’s hard when they say now is not the best time to visit amongst each other.”
She said isolation has put pressure on interpersonal bonds that are usually very strong. “With this around, I’ve seen more little outbreaks of emotional friction. Just the little things, because of COVID,” she said. “It’s not perfect, but conflicts make us who we are. I know they come out harsh at times, but this helps us to go forward.”
Ozenna stressed that the village’s pandemic response has been a team effort, and that despite their struggles, she’s seen her community come together to keep their home safe. “When we work together on it, we seem to go a little further,” she said. “We’re going to be here for a long time.”
Soolook, too, said Diomede’s traditional values were the community’s strength. “Living on an island, you can never rush things out here. You’ve got nowhere else to go. So, you’ve got to use patience,” he said. “If you don’t have that patience, you’re not going to make it.” That patience, he said, has helped Diomede resist the urge to give up and reopen, an impatient response that has swept across much of the country. He also said that the perennial uncertainty of life at the edge of the world has prepared Diomede for the unpredictable stresses of life during a pandemic.
“We adapt, we’re very adaptable. We learn to live with that goes and what goes not,” he said. “I’m happy, I’m fortunate to be out here.”
Reporting for this article was supported by the National Geographic Society.