By the Bay: April 17, 2020
BBAHC continues to prepare for a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the region. The state introduced new guidelines for sport fishing this week that will shape Bristol Bay's summer tourism, and the Brooks Camp Development in Katmai National Park will close until at least July 1.
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The state announced nine new cases of COVID-19 today in Anchorage, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula. That brings the total count to 309 Alaskans diagnosed with the disease, 128 of whom have recovered. There was one new hospitalization and no new deaths. About 9,500 tests have been conducted so far.
Bristol Bay is the largest and most valuable sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Millions of reds return to spawn in the streams and lakes around the region. And thousands of commercial fishermen, processors and cannery workers come to a region with limited health-care infrastructure. This year, concerns about COVID-19 are hanging over the fishing season. Izzy filed this report for Alaska’s Energy Desk.
ADF&G doesn’t have any jurisdiction over whether the state opens or closes the fishery, but they are working to implement safety measures.
Rick Green is the special assistant to the commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Green said that they’re learning from the fisheries currently underway — looking ahead, they’re specifically focused on Cordova, which is the first salmon fishery in the state.
Here’s what Green said about how they’re learning to operate safely this year.
Bristol Bay’s regional organizations are demanding a comprehensive set of requirements for people coming to fish and work In a letter to Governor Mike Dunleavy Wednesday, the Bristol Bay Working Group calls on the state to set a “program of rigorous enforcement” in place to ensure that fishermen and workers were complying with health mandates. It also calls for pre-testing fisheries workers arriving into the region for COVID-19, and requires a follow-up test to come back negative after the workers arrive. If the state can’t implement their requirements, the group says, the fishery should be closed.
"If the fishery is allowed to go forward without these measures, ignoring the warnings of public health experts and officials and the pleas of Bristol Bay communities, the consequences will be devastating and generational," the group writes.
The letter also voices concerns about the health and safety of residents during the upcoming commercial fishing season. It points out that the region has only one hospital with 16 beds and no intensive care units. In their letter, the organizations say that an outbreak among the fishing fleet would overwhelm the system.
The Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation is continuing preparations for a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the region. Dr. Cathy Hyndman, the clinical director of the corporation, said 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,” Hyndman said.
The corporation is currently reviewing the various testing modalities that are available. Kanakanak Hospital has acquired a testing machine that can conduct a quick test for the virus. The machine is designated for testing people who show signs of COVID-19.
But while its positive tests are accurate, a negative test is not a 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,” Hyndman said.
Still, Hyndman said that the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage is looking toward getting machinery that can test for antibodies associated with COVID-19.
The hospital in Dillingham has the capacity to handle about 12 patients that need additional oxygen as of Thursday. BBAHC is making arrangements to rent Grandma’s House in downtown Dillingham as an alternative care facility with 20 additional beds, which would be utilized for recovering patients who did not need oxygen.
Hyndman said they are talking with canneries and processors about how to best coordinate the various means of testing 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 hospital is also providing telephone consultation. People can call the outpatient department at 907-842-9367 to schedule an appointment. Emergency care is still available at the facility as well. The corporation is encouraging residents to postpone standard elective appointments, like pap smears.
As of Thursday evening, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Bristol Bay.
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.
Wearing masks in public is highly recommended to avoid spreading germs. Izzy talked to Dr. Hyndman about how to cover your face safely.
The region is a hot spot for summer tourism, and a big draw is sport fishing. While the state lists fishing of any kind as critical infrastructure due to COVID-19, travel mandates could make those trips an upstream battle for people trying to come in from out of state.
KDLG’s Tyler Thompson takes a look at how sportfishing guidelines could affect tourism and communities this season.
Meanwhile Katmai National Park is making changes that will affect tourism on their own. At Park, the Brooks Camp Developed area averages around 20,000 visitors in the summer. The lodge and campgrounds are a short walk from Brooks Falls, where tourists flock to view bears. But those sections of the park will be closed off until at least July 1 — one month later — due to the coronavirus.
The Bristol Bay Native Corporation has partnered with the Igiugig Village Council, to acquire a 15% ownership of Diamond Point, LLC. That includes its main asset — a rock quarry.
The quarry is located on the west side of Cook Inlet. Iliaska Environmental, a subsidiary of the Igiugig’s council, purchased Diamond Point in 2013.
Christina Salmon-Bringhurst is a council member and manager of Iliaska Environmental. She says they want to provide rock to coastal communities that need shore protection. They chose BBNC because of its expertise in business and management. She says that a successful quarry will provide jobs, and will allow people in the region the opportunity to stay.
The quarry is thought to contain 30-40 million cubic yards of high-quality hard rock, according to BBNC. The corporation and council hope to use that for projects in coastal communities.
Diamond Point is also more accessible than Williamsport, where barges currently offload supplies for the village.
Salmon-Bringhurst said they hope to eventually build a road from Diamond Point to Williamsport and open up the flow of freight into the region.
The company, Diamond Point LLC, will complete testing the quarry’s rock material this spring and will be ready to sell material this summer.