Region sees no new COVID cases for the first time since June
For the first time since June, an entire week has passed in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region without any new cases of COVID-19 being identified. There are still two active cases in the region, one in Nome and one in Koyuk.
In a regular conference call, Norton Sound Health Corporation Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson warned that the drop in cases, while promising, could easily turn back into a spike if preventative measures like masks and social distancing are abandoned.
“Things are looking better, but it’s because of what we’re all doing, not in spite of it,” he said. He added that the state continues to see a hundred cases or more every day, so people traveling outside the region should remain especially careful.
NSHC has made more headway in terms of vaccinations as well, with around 51 percent of eligible adults in the region having received their first dose, according to Dr. Peterson.
Some communities are very close to NSHC’s goals for vaccine-induced herd immunity. In White Mountain, 85 percent of those eligible have received their first dose, and 61 percent have received their second dose. In Wales, 77 percent have received at least one shot.
Other communities are still lagging behind. In Stebbins, just 17 percent of eligible residents have elected to get the vaccine. Peterson said they were planning on sending physician teams to Stebbins and other low-turnout villages to talk with people one-on-one and convince them to accept the shot.
“The numbers are good, but we have the capacity to be higher,” he said. There remain extra doses meant for villages in the hospital’s freezers in Nome, and Dr.Peterson said he hoped to send those doses out as soon as village clinics confirm that they have willing patients.
Last Thursday, the Centers of Disease Control released an updated recommendation that the fully vaccinated – those who received their second shot more than two weeks ago – do not need to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case.
Peterson said NSHC would still advocate for the testing of all close contacts regardless of vaccination status, but would no longer require vaccinated contacts to do seven-day quarantines, similarly to how they no longer require quarantines for vaccinated travelers.
The change also means that a vaccinated person can share a household with an unvaccinated traveler in quarantine without quarantining themselves. “And if there’s a village case and some close contacts have been vaccinated, those contacts don’t need to quarantine,” Peterson said.
The change is yet another reason to get vaccinated as soon as possible, he said, but clarified that being vaccinated still doesn’t exempt a person from limits on public gatherings or mask mandates.
On Monday, the state’s COVID-19 Public Health Emergency expired without being renewed by the state legislature or the governor, meaning that some of the state-level pandemic rules no longer apply.
“One of the greatest impacts that we’re seeing relates to telehealth,” said NSHC CEO Angie Gorn on a regular conference call. Previously during the pandemic, patients could consult with their doctors over the phone without setting up an in-person appointment.
“But that all came to a halt when the PHE was not extended,” Gorn said. She said NSHC would continue to advocate for the emergency order to be reinstated.
Another major change is that incoming travelers from out of state will no longer be required to test when they come into Alaska. While everyone arriving in Nome still needs to test, Dr. Peterson warned that the state-level change may cause a rise in Anchorage cases that could bleed over into the region, so he emphasized the importance of staying vigilant even as case numbers fall.
Legally, the state’s emergency declaration is supposed to be renewed by the state legislature, but the disorganized state House was unable to pass the required legislation. Then, instead of renewing the declaration through executive action, Governor Mike Dunleavy opted to let it expire.
In its place, Dunleavy has instituted a number of health advisories, which aim to ensure basic preventative measures are maintained and regulate travel to rein in the spread.
But the expiration of the emergency declaration will have major repercussions throughout the state, not all of which are totally understood. According to reporting by the AP, health and emergency officials have warned that a failure to extend the emergency declaration could restrict the state’s ability to distribute vaccines and set back progress made in combating COVID-19. Alaska Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum told lawmakers that the expiration of the state disaster declaration could cost Alaska $8 million a month in expanded food stamp benefits. The Senate passed a resolution last Friday urging the governor to issue a new, narrowly defined declaration of up to 30 days.
As of Tuesday, there had been a total of 56,913 cases, 1,233 hospitalizations and 287 deaths throughout Alaska.
In the Bering Strait / Norton Sound region, there have 317 total cases, six hospitalizations and no deaths.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism