By Julia Lerner
Since last week, Norton Sound Health Corporation has identified new COVID-19 positive cases across the region, including two in Nome, eight in Koyuk and three cases in unidentified locations. There are currently 18 active cases in the region.
On Tuesday, June 22, three Koyuk residents tested positive for COVID-19 in community-spread cases.
On June 23, NSHC identified a positive COVID-19 case in a resident of the region. The case was related to travel. In addition, two people in Koyuk tested positive in cases of spread in the community.
On June 24, two more people tested positive for COVID-19. Both cases were spread in the community, with one person tested positive in Nome and one person tested positive in Koyuk.
A resident of the region tested positive for COVID-19 on June 27 in a community-spread case and NSHC did not reveal where the case is located. A non-resident of the region tested positive on June 28th. The source of the non-resident virus is still under investigation, and the patient is isolated.
On June 29, two additional cases were detected in Koyuk and are deemed community-spread. A third was found, but the location has not been disclosed and is also community-spread.
Typically, once a person tests positive for COVID-19, they are considered an “active case” for ten days, though the case may be closed if individual tests are negative later. Ten of the people in the Koyuk epidemic have been released into isolation, meaning their cases are closed.
“The Koyuk outbreak is highly infectious,” said NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson. “People who come in contact with it will get it. [This] outbreaks are likely one of the new variants. “
NSHC is recommending a “hunker-down” period in Koyuk to prevent further spread.
The alpha variant P.1, first discovered by Brazilian travelers in Japan, and the variant B.1.1.7, first discovered in the United Kingdom, were both detected in the Bering Channel region earlier this summer. The Delta variant, originally found in India and first detected in Alaska in late June, is particularly infectious, and more dangerous than previously seen-variants.
“If I hadn’t been vaccinated, I would have feared this variant,” Dr. Peterson said. “It is 60 percent more infectious than the alpha variant, which was 50 percent more infectious than the original wild-type strain. Experts said it [the Delta variant] seems to find people at risk. He will find people who are not vaccinated and he tends to find young people, because they are the ones who are not vaccinated now. It is highly infectious, causes twice the hospitalization rate, and there is a concern that it could be causing more serious illness. “
The MRVa COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, is well equipped to protect against current variants if people receive both doses of the vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a single-dose shot, works, “but it appears that MRNa vaccines work a bit better against the delta variant,” Dr. Peterson said.
Last week, NSHC administered a total of 42 new doses of vaccine, 33 vaccines were administered in Nome, and nine were administered in villages across the region. About 71 percent of Nome’s population received at least one dose of a vaccine, but Dr. Peterson worries about retention, especially in smaller populations.
“There is no question in my mind that anyone who is not vaccinated will get COVID sometime over the next six to 12 months,” he said. “They will eventually get it, so they might as well protect themselves from chronic COVID symptoms. About 30 percent of people will have chronic, long-term symptoms. A good probably 30 percent of people will see severe symptoms of COVID if they find it, and one in 200 will die. “
There have been zero COVID-related deaths in the Bering Channel region since the pandemic began, but Dr. Peterson worries that the slow vaccination rates could lead to more severe and infectious variants. A caller during the weekly COVID-19 conference call expressed concern that it could take an outbreak in the villages to “wake up” unvaccinated people.
About 50 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 40 are not vaccinated, despite being eligible, Dr. Peterson said. NSHC is creating opportunities for young adults to be vaccinated by setting up vaccination spaces in areas trafficked by smaller populations, including Anvil City Square in Nome.
“We’re putting a mobile vaccination wind together and we’re going to bring that to parts of town where young people tend to be,” Dr. Peterson explains. NSHC expects to launch the vaccine winds this weekend.
NSHC is also working on incentives for vaccinators, including the Nome Chamber of Commerce raffle. The Raf, open to anyone over the age of 12 who has been vaccinated in the region, has weekly awards available, as well as several grand awards to be given later this summer. Last week, Nome residents Katie Kelso and Leesa Jones won the $ 1,000 prize. Arrington Cash of Nome, Emily Walluk of Nome and Anita Jemewouk of Elim won the $ 200 awards.
Vaccines are now available for anyone aged 12 and up in several locations around Nome, including the NSHC pharmacy, the airport and the post office.
During the weekly COVID-19 call conference, Dr. Peterson encouraged the surrounding communities to consider vaccine mandates. “If village leadership wanted vaccination warrants for certain activities in a village, I would strongly encourage that,” he said. “Norton Sound did that.”
Dr Peterson expressed concern about the vaccine’s misinformation spread across the region during the weekly COVID-19 conference call and is working with villages to reduce the spread of false information.
There is a common misconception that vaccines don’t work against the variants, Peterson explains, but that’s just not true. “The shots work very well against [the Delta variant], “he said.
Across Alaska, there have been a total of 71,187 cases, 1,656 hospitalizations (11 current hospitalizations) and 374 deaths since the pandemic began last year.
In Nome, Bering canal and Norton Sound region, there were 402 cases, eight hospitalizations and no deaths.