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Bristol Bay health organizations increase testing capacity as they brace for fishing season

Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Bristol Bay's health corporation and the Camai clinic in Naknek are continuing to prepare for the upcoming fishing season, when the region expects thousands of fishermen and workers from around the country to come to the region. 

Health organizations in Bristol Bay are continuing preparations for a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the region.

Dr. Cathy Hyndman, the clinical director of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, says they are in regular conversations with a multitude of agencies and stakeholders about precautions for the upcoming fishing season — from daily critical incident meetings to weekly talks with villages about what clinics can do to prepare.

“We are being very plain about what we have access to, which is we do have oxygen, which is the major thing that is needed to treat the majority of the cases. But we are also being very plain that we do not have ICU coverage,” she said. 

The corporation is currently reviewing the various testing options that are available. Kanakanak Hospital has acquired a testing machine that can conduct a quick test for the virus. The machine, an Abbott ID Now, is designated for people who show signs of COVID-19, not for widespread testing.

But while its positive results are accurate, a negative test result does not guarantee that the patient does not have the virus.

“I wish — I surely wish we had a 100% surefire way of saying, ‘You don’t have this disease and it’s safe for you to fish.’ And I cannot say that at this time,” she said.

The hospital in Dillingham currently has roughly 300 test kits available, and as of Sunday the capacity to handle about 12 patients that need additional oxygen. BBAHC is making arrangements to rent Dillingham’s former senior living center, Grandma’s House as an alternative care facility with 20 additional beds, to use for recovering patients who do not need oxygen.

Hyndman said they are talking with canneries and processors about how to best coordinate for coronavirus.

“We are hoping that our discussions with the local fishery and with the fishery in general will decrease the risk to our communities, but we will never get that risk down to zero,” she said. 

The majority of processors are in the Bristol Bay Borough, on the east side of the bay. The community's year-round population of under one thousand residents increases exponentially during the summer, as processor and cannery workers and fishermen circulate in and out.

The Camai Community Health Center is working to prepare for the upcoming fishing season as well. In an update on Facebook, Director and CEO Mary Swain said that the clinic is not in the position to use ventilators, pointing out that the equipment is used in hospitals with intensive care units, nursing staff, and the ability to run labs immediately.

"Our hope is that anyone that will need advanced care will be identified early and have been transported out of Bristol Bay Borough quickly," she wrote.

Swain also said that the clinic is planning to increase testing. They are hiring more providers than in previous years. Providers will go to workers who are sick, so that those individuals won’t have to leave the area unless the provider deems it necessary. They will also offer telehealth appointments for fishermen who are on their boats or in camps.

They are going to conduct a drill with the state public health department at the beginning of May, which will help them refine procedures and weak points.

As of Sunday evening, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Bristol Bay.

Kanakanak Hospital is currently providing telephone consultation and emergency care. The corporation is encouraging residents to postpone standard elective appointments. BBAHC asks all patients to call before coming to the hospital, and to wear masks when they do so. You can call the hospital at 907-842-5201.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.