Dr. Peterson reflects on one year of COVID-19
About one year ago, “the coronavirus” began to fundamentally change life globally and the Bering Strait region was not spared. While Nome didn’t see its first case until mid-April, March marked the beginning of the region’s first pandemic lockdowns. Since then, although the area’s economy took a major hit and some residents fell seriously ill, no one has been killed by the virus and vaccination rates are leading the country.
Dr. Mark Peterson, Medical Director at Norton Sound Health Corporation, discussed how the region has weathered the storm and how he’s felt about helping lead NSHC through the public health crisis.
In terms of case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths, the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region has done remarkably well over the past year compared to other parts of the country or the state. Since the start of the pandemic the region has seen 319 cases, six hospitalizations and zero deaths.
While there were major outbreaks in Gambell and Stebbins, and Nome’s case numbers surged after a large community spread event in late November, all the region’s outbreaks were ultimately kept under control. The hospital was never so overwhelmed with cases that it struggled to provide other services.
The situation stands in stark contrast to other regions around Western Alaska. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, there had been 4,898 confirmed cases as of last Friday according to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, or more than 20 percent of the region’s population. In the Nome Census Area, only around three percent of the region’s population has tested positive.
The Northwest Arctic Borough has seen 594 cases according to the Maniilaq Association, or more than seven percent of the region’s population. The North Slope Borough has reported 1,000 cases, or about 10 percent of the population.
The North Slope Borough has also reported four deaths, while the Northwest Arctic Borough has reported two. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, there have been 22 COVID-19 deaths so far, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.
How did Nome and the surrounding region get through the first year of the pandemic relatively unscathed? Dr. Peterson said a lot of it comes down to strong leadership across the spectrum, from large regional organizations to smaller communities.
“Different levels of leadership were on the same page,” he said. “That’s really what’s done it, the collaboration between leadership in Norton Sound, the city, and individual communities. That’s been the key, no question.”
The high level of coordination enabled the region to impose strict travel restrictions relatively early in the pandemic. For the first few months, travelers required a special form from the City of Nome demonstrating that they were entering the region on essential business. All incoming travelers were also required to get tested at the airport and quarantine for at least seven days. Individual villages impose their own versions of those restrictions as well.
While some people felt those measures were infringing on their liberty, and the travel forms were eventually done away with, Dr. Peterson said the quick and coordinated action helped put a lid on incoming virus and gave NSHC the breathing room to coordinate mass testing and contact tracing.
The City of Bethel, by comparison, never imposed a strict quarantine mandate like Nome did in the early days of the pandemic. In May of 2020 – after COVID was already present in the region – testing was available at the Bethel airport, but not required, and KYUK reported that fewer than half of incoming passengers chose to get tested.
Today, people traveling to Bethel are required to test negative for COVID-19 72 hours before traveling or test negative at the Bethel airport. Those who are unable or unwilling to obtain a negative test are encouraged to “follow strict social distancing for seven days.”
But the coronavirus gets harder to tamp down once it’s established a presence in a community. “Once enough virus gets into a region, it’s really hard to then get it out,” Dr. Peterson said. “We were fortunate that we kept it out effectively from the beginning.”
Iditarod may have played a hand in that. While most Alaskans were still trying to figure out what the new virus was, Nome was holding an emergency meeting to determine what to do about the impending influx of mushers, support staff and spectators from all over the world.
When the City decided to cancel race-related festivities and close non-essential city buildings, it set a precedent of decisive public action early on that has extended throughout the pandemic.
“Having an Iditarod a year ago, when everybody nationally and internationally piles into Nome, could have and probably would have been a big disaster,” Dr. Peterson said. But he was pleased with the City’s response, and the response of the entire community to the pandemic as a whole.
“It probably went about as good as it could have,” he said.
Personally, Peterson said the pandemic has taken a toll. He usually splits his time between Nome and North Dakota, but the threat of the virus made travel more difficult. As one of the main leaders of NSHC, he was also under immense pressure.
“It was extremely stressful,” he said. “Nothing more stressful in my medical life have I ever encountered, or will ever encounter, because it was so profound, so global, so unknown, and we’re so remote.”
For months, he was scrambling to secure more tests and more analyzers, to stay on top of the most up-to-date research on the virus and advise the region accordingly. After about nine months, he said the stress started to subside. NSHC finally felt well-equipped and experienced enough to handle the daily challenges of the pandemic.
“We got analyzers in every village, we were testing, we got contact tracing going pretty well. We kind of turned the corner a couple months ago and I knew we were going to be okay,” he said.
Another major factor in that relief was the release of the first vaccines. The vaccines’ effectiveness and availability in the region finally brought the end of the pandemic in sight, and while it’s not over yet, Dr. Peterson said the success of the region’s vaccine rollout has made him optimistic.
“We’re not going to let our guard down,” he said, “But it’s felt really good here these last couple months. It’s felt really good.”
Going forward, Dr. Peterson said his number one priority is to get as much of the region vaccinated as possible. He’s shooting for 80 percent of the total population or higher, which is what many scientists say is the threshold for herd immunity.
“We had no trouble getting the first half of the region vaccinated, but it’s going to be harder to get the second half, since that’s the half that’s not quite as excited about getting the vaccine,” he said.
To drum up interest, NSHC is working on a public awareness campaigns specific to each community and creating incentives for people to sign up for the shot. Peterson said he’s also been working with leadership in Nome and other regional communities, utilizing strong partnerships that have kept the region relatively safe for the last year.
“It’ll take a little while,” he said, “but we’ll get there.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism