First COVID cases found at Diomede, SLI
The Bering Strait/Norton Sound region saw five new cases of COVID-19 this week – one in each of the communities of Nome, White Mountain, Savoonga, Gambell and Diomede – bringing the total number of regional cases to 34. The first new case was identified on Wednesday, August 12 in Nome. The patient is a resident of Nome and was a close contact of one of the travel-related cases announced on August 11. This patient is considered part of the “cluster” of six cases in Nome all tied to two travelers that tested positive at the airport on August 11. All patients in the cluster are isolating.
The second and third cases this week were announced on Saturday, August 15 and Sunday, August 16 in the villages of White Mountain and Savoonga, respectively. Both cases were individuals who recently travelled into the villages, although NSHC did not disclose whether or not the patients were village residents. Both patients are currently isolating, and NSHC is working with White Mountain and Savoonga leadership to test close contacts.
The fourth case was also announced on Sunday, August 16 in the village of Diomede. The patient is a resident of Diomede, but NSHC said in a press release that the patient had been in close contact with an individual from the August 11 Nome cluster, which is likely how they contracted the virus. The patient is isolating, and NSHC is working with Diomede leadership to develop a response plan.
The fifth case was discovered on Tuesday, when NSHC received a positive COVID-19 test result for a patient located in Gambell. The patient was tested as part of follow-up testing of close contacts related to a case announced on Sunday, August 16, in Savoonga. The latest patient is now safely isolating.
NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said adhering to quarantine protocols, especially for people who recently traveled into the region, is key to preventing large clusters of cases. “People are needing to follow the quarantine guidelines more closely,” he said in a conference call. “Seven days of quarantine: that means you stay in your house. It needs to be that tight. I cannot say enough about that.”
The size of the August 11 cluster could have been significantly reduced, he said, if people had followed the quarantine rules more tightly. If any community member knows that someone is violating quarantine, he recommended alerting their community leadership immediately.
NSHC has also received enough rapid analyzer testing machines to distribute one to every village. Six villages – Unalakleet, Shishmaref, St. Michael, Shaktoolik, Gambell and Teller – already have rapid analyzers up and running, meaning that village clinics can get test results within 24 hours of testing. Machines should be distributed to the remaining villages, and clinic workers should be trained to use them by the end of the month.
Rapid test kits, however, which are consumed every time a rapid test is conducted and must be replenished regularly, are still in limited supply. NSHC recently received a shipment of 3,000 test kits, and is distributing kits to the villages, but it is not making rapid tests available to everyone. Dr. Peterson reported in a conference call that Abbott Laboratories, which manufactures the test kits, has been facing uncertainty in their global supply chain, and that as a result NSHC would be more conservative with rapid tests going forward.
Anyone who shows cold or flu-like symptoms, was a close contact to a confirmed positive case, or is hospitalized for any reason will still be able to receive a rapid test. Dental patients and travelers going through Nome to the villages will also receive rapid tests for the time being, although dental trips may be postponed if supplies run low again.
Rapid tests will not be available to people going into or out of travel-related quarantine. Instead, those tests will be sent to Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage for analysis, a process that can take three to five days to get results back. Recent travelers in quarantine will need to keep quarantining past their seventh-day test until the test results are back.
Dr. Peterson said he knew this would be inconvenient for many travelers but he insisted that maintaining a full supply of rapid tests is critical in case another cluster arises. He said that when multiple related cases pop up on the same day, like what happened on August 11, there can be a large number of close contacts that all need rapid tests at the same time, and having enough supplies to test all those contacts at once is crucial to keeping clusters small.
Statewide, there have been 4,371 resident cases and 806 nonresident cases as of Tuesday. Of the 153 ICU beds and 286 ventilators in the state, 75 beds and 24 ventilators are occupied, including non-COVID patients. There have been 29 COVID-related deaths in Alaska.
In the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region there have been 34 total cases, with eight cases currently active. No patients have been hospitalized, and no has died.