Now everyone in this 700-person Indigenous community knows someone who had the coronavirus. Thirty-three residents tested positive this month, part of a wave of coronavirus cases that have shut down small towns in Alaska. Currently, more than 20 communities in western Alaska are either on strict lockdown or advised to be on one.
For months, Alaska’s remote, mostly Indigenous rural communities protected themselves from the coronavirus through restrictions on travel and local health measures. Once the virus arrived, though, conditions enabled it to spread like wildfire. Cases have exploded in recent weeks in some of the country’s most geographically isolated regions, leaving residents and health officials fearful that acute cases could quickly overwhelm the state’s meager hospital system.
In Chevak, a town of 1,075 near the mouth of the Yukon River in far western Alaska, almost a fifth of its residents have tested positive for the coronavirus as of this week.
After a handful of positive tests, Mayor Richard Tuluk said, leaders and health officials in the region quickly arranged for widespread testing at Chevak’s small local clinic. More than 700 people submitted samples. Tuluk says around 170 came back positive.
Chevak and other towns in the region have suspended in-person instruction across dozens of tiny community schools, relying on distance learning in a region with inconsistent and expensive Internet. The community’s lone store closed for days, prompting complaints from residents unable to get necessities like milk or diapers. The post office is severely backlogged. Masking is more strictly observed, and gatherings beyond immediate family have all but ceased.
Alaska managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the first months of the pandemic by locking down early. But numbers crept up over the summer and are now rising exponentially, with hundreds of daily cases reported. At 48.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, the positivity rate is the eighth highest in the country, though Alaska has so far maintained among the lowest mortality rates for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Chevak hasn’t yet seen high numbers of people falling seriously ill after testing positive.
“Knock on wood,” Tuluk said. “So far we haven’t heard of any of our elders getting sick or things like that.”
Lockdowns, quarantines and self-isolation are difficult in rural Alaska, particularly in the state’s western and northern quadrants. Housing is cramped. The inadequate broadband system makes Internet distractions like video-streaming or gaming difficult.
“Every household is sticking to themselves as much as possible,” said Charlotte Apatiki, who is Siberian Yupik and city clerk in Gambell.
At the height of its lockdown in late September and early October, the community’s store would only take food orders called in ahead of time as supply shipments sputtered. The mayor and some village police officers delivered food and water to residents in isolation.
“There was no fresh produce for quite a while, no fresh meat, nothing but canned goods,” Apatiki said.
In spite of the fear and difficulty, the measures worked. Gambell hasn’t