Gambell COVID cluster grows to 19

Nome changes its testing protocols

The past week saw 15 new COVID-19 cases in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region. This marks the occurrence of the most new regional cases in any single week since the pandemic started and is notable because a cluster of 13 new cases were detected in Gambell. This brings the total number of regional cases up to 80, with 19 cases in the Gambell cluster that was first discovered on Saturday, September 19.
On Wednesday, September 23, Norton Sound Health Corporation announced four new Gambell cases and one new case in Nome. The Nome case was not a resident of the region. The person recently arrived in Nome and tested positive as part of the city’s mandatory testing policy for incoming travelers. The person is currently isolating in Nome.
On Friday, NSHC announced four additional cases in Gambell and one case in nearby Savoonga. The patient in Savoonga is a resident of the village who had recently travelled and is currently isolating. Public Health Nursing is following up with the Savoonga patient’s close contacts.
On Sunday, NSHC announced three more cases in Gambell, and on Monday they announced another two.
In response to the outbreak, NSHC sent out a team with two additional rapid analyzer machines to facilitate widespread testing in Gambell. As of Monday, they had tested 67 percent of the village, NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said in a regular conference call.
He also said that they were investigating about 200 contacts, and that they expect to discover more positive cases in the coming days. Like elsewhere, most patients in Gambell have been asymptomatic, he said, although some patients have developed “mild to moderate symptoms.”
Gambell leadership has responded by instituting a two-week lockdown for the entire village. School has been shut down for the duration of the lockdown, and all households are instructed to stay inside their homes and only leave for essential business. Gambell has instituted a 9 p.m. curfew for children and an 11 p.m. curfew for adults, and Gambell’s Village Public Safety Officers have been hired by NSHC to help deliver groceries and enforce the quarantine order. Quarantine violators face a $250 fine.
In nearby Savoonga, where one new case has been reported in the last week, the city announced on Friday that people who violated their mandatory quarantine would be fined $500, or 100 hours of supervised community service if they could not pay in one week’s time. Two people have been fined for violating quarantine requirements.
A recent change in recommendations from Abbott, the company that makes NSHC’s rapid testing equipment, will change testing protocol in Nome in the coming week. While the company originally said that nasal swabs could be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before they are analyzed, new data shows that the system gets the most accurate results when samples are analyzed just one hour after swabbing. In light of this, Abbott is recommending that all healthcare providers process their COVID-19 tests within an hour of swabbing the patient, and NSHC plans to comply.
Nothing should change in the villages, Peterson said, where most rapid tests are already processed immediately after swabbing anyway. In Nome, however, the testing tent that was previously open to walk-ins will change to an appointment-only system.
The system is not entirely finalized, said NSHC CEO Angie Gorn on a regular conference call, but changes should be in place sometime this week.
People wanting to be tested will need to schedule an appointment using a link that will be posted on the NSHC website and Facebook page. A call or text line may also be available, and information about the new system will be posted online and on Facebook when it is finalized.
Appointments at the testing tent will be limited to 12 per hour to give staff time to process the tests immediately after swabbing, but Peterson said NSHC is ordering two additional Abbott ID NOW testing machines, which will increase its capacity going forward. He also said routine testing for NSHC employees will switch entirely to send-out tests that go to the state lab in Fairbanks for processing. Some rapid testing may still be available at the airport, although the exact protocol is still being worked out.
Statewide, Alaska has had 8,874 cases as of Tuesday, 4,294 of which are currently active. Hospitals across the state have seen 294 COVID-19 patients, seven people are currently on ventilators with the virus, and 56 people have died.
In the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region, there have been 80 total cases, 19 of which are currently active. No regional patients have gone on a ventilator, and none have died.

 Funding for this coverage provided in part by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

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