31 new cases of COVID-19, all in Nome
Thirty-one new cases of COVID-19 were detected in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region this week. Every new case was in Nome, bringing the total number of cases in the region since the beginning of the pandemic to 250, with 62 cases currently active.
The majority of new cases this week were detected on Wednesday, November 25. A total of 16 people tested positive last Wednesday, including one nonresident who had recently traveled into the region and 14 close contacts of other known cases. The origin of the sixteenth case was still under investigation and may have been the result of community spread.
The following day, one more Nome resident tested positive, and the source of the person’s infection could not be identified.
Then, on Friday, November 27, six more people tested positive. Two were nonresidents of the region who had recently traveled into Nome, three were Nome residents, and one was a regional resident staying in Nome. One of the Nome residents was an employee of Norton Sound Health Corporation who tested positive during routine employee testing, but an NSHC press release said they “had very little patient exposure.”
On Saturday, November 28, three more cases were identified. One was a nonresident of the region who had recently traveled, one was a close contact of a known case, and one was still under investigation.
Then on Monday, November 30, NSHC identified five cases. One was travel-related, three were close contacts of known positives, and one was attributed to community spread.
All 62 active cases are currently in Nome, and over 250 people in Nome have been in COVID-related quarantine over the last few weeks. There are no active cases in regional villages, although some village residents remain in close-contact quarantine and may turn positive in the future.
In a regular conference call, NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said now that the virus is loose in Nome, they were expecting case numbers to continue to increase. “It’s here now, it’s in our community and I don’t think we’re going to get to zero cases in Nome,” he said. “I hope we can keep the numbers more in the single digits.”
He added that while the region has seen no COVID-related deaths yet, it’s only a matter of time before it does. “We expect we will, simply because our region is following the trend all over the country and all over the world of no cases, then increasing cases, then hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “We just want to delay that progression in our region long enough that we can get the vaccine here.”
In Nome, bars have closed, restaurants have switched to takeout only, and taxicabs may only transport one passenger or passengers from the same household at a time to reduce the risk of transmission.
A number of recent infections have been tied to taxicabs, and NSHC is recommending that anyone who rode in a taxi with another person outside their household in the last week get tested.
Some COVID-19 vaccines have shown promise in clinical trials, and vaccine developers Pfizer and Moderna are expected to apply for FDA emergency approval in the coming weeks. “We are committed to expediting the development of COVID-19 vaccines, but not at the expense of sound science and decision making” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn in a statement. “We will not jeopardize the public’s trust in our science-based, independent review of these or any vaccines. There’s too much at stake.”
According to the Associated Press, a CDC government advisory panel said Tuesday that health care workers and nursing home residents should be at the front of the line when the first coronavirus vaccine shots become available. AP reports that the panel voted 13-1 to recommend those groups get priority in the first days of any coming vaccination program, when doses are expected to be very limited. The two groups encompass about 24 million people out of a U.S. population of about 330 million. It is projected that no more than 20 million doses of each vaccine will be available by the end of 2020, requiring two doses.
If the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved, they could be distributed to healthcare workers in Alaska, including Nome and the surrounding region, as early as the middle of December. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet again to decide who should be next in line, possibly teachers, police, firefighters and workers in other essential fields such as food production and transportation; the elderly; and people with underlying medical conditions. It will likely not be available to the general public until later in the spring.
Meanwhile, case numbers across Alaska have continued to surge and put unprecedented pressure on the state’s healthcare system. The Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage has said it is officially over capacity and has opened an alternate care site to accommodate extra patients.
The surge has also strained reporting systems, causing delays in reporting the full numbers of new cases as healthcare workers are swamped with contact tracing and emergency response.
Dr. Peterson said that while about 500 cases were reported statewide on Monday, the actual number was likely higher than that. On Saturday, a lab in Anchorage announced it had failed to report 1,600 positive cases as it struggles to deal with the current surge.
As of Tuesday, there had been 33,091 total cases reported in Alaska, 749 hospitalizations and 122 deaths.
In the Norton Sound/Bering Strait region, there have been 250 positive cases, with 62 currently active. There have been three COVID-19 patients in the hospital, and no deaths.
To get tested, people in Nome can make an appointment at www.picktime.com/NSHC or call or text 907-434-0461 for assistance making an appointment or getting transportation to the testing facility.