Community leaders gather in Dillingham to discuss coronavirus

Mar 6, 2020

Education, preparedness and prevention of the coronavirus were themes of the meeting in Dillingham. While there are no confirmed cases in Alaska so far, community leaders want to coordinate their approach if the virus comes to the region.

Gina Carpenter lead Dillingham's coronavirus preparedness meeting on Monday. Members from the hospital, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Southwest Region School District, Dillingham School District and Curyung Tribe were all in attendance.
Credit KDLG/Tyler Thompson

In two months, Dillingham’s population will more than double in size, as fishermen and cannery workers from across the globe come to the region to work during the 2020 salmon season.

At a meeting in Dillingham Monday, Gina Carpenter, a public health nurse, addressed concerns about the workers coming to the region, citing the state health department.

“They said specifically that’s a federal jurisdiction outside the state," Carpenter said. "Because the feds are going to make the determination about screening with TSA, they’re going to make determination about countries. The coastguard, has always had responsibility for folks coming over the waterways. They are supposedly aware of these boats that are coming from countries where there may be coronavirus.”

But how the situation will evolve is unknown. The state is currently recommending that people use the Center for Disease Control to monitor information about the virus.

Kanakanak Hospital is participating in weekly situational conference calls with the Department of Health and Social Services, and it also has an emergency plan in place for potential outbreaks. Safety Officer David Griffin said the hospital ran an exercise to simulate an Ebola patient coming to the hospital last year.

“At least if we have a highly infectious patient arriving at the hospital that person can be secured, segregated, stabilized and rapidly flown out to better facilities over in Anchorage,” Griffin said.

The hospital has three negative pressure rooms to isolate priority patients. Infection Specialist Nathalie Dull 

Symptoms of the COVID-19 illness.
Credit Courtesy of Center for Disease Control and Prevention

is working with aides in surrounding villages and sending information about the virus. If a resident has not travelled recently, it is extremely unlikely that they would have the virus. But Dull said it could get tricky if a village experiences an outbreak.

“But what would it look like in a village? I don’t know," Dull said. "That’s another part of the plan where we have to get them here. And of course with our testing capability, there’s only testing at the state labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Those things will take time where we will have to base their care on clinical judgements and getting the results after the fact.”

People who show symptoms of cough and fever are advised to isolate themselves at home for up to 14 days. If symptoms continue, Griffin recommends calling the hospital first, before leaving the house.

Bristol Bay is also no stranger to widespread illness. The 1919 influenza epidemic swept through Naknek, Dillingham, Ugashik and other parts of the region. Historians estimate that 40% of Bristol Bay’s population was wiped out by the flu.

Curyung Tribal Council First Chief Thomas Tilden wants people to be mindful of that history.

"We're going to have to use new technology that we have, making sure we reach out to households, Facebook and Twitter to make sure people know what we're up against." Curyung Tribal Council First Chief Thomas Tilden
Credit KDLG/Tyler Thompson

“I remember my grandma telling me about the influenza when it hit her community up in Nelson island," Tilden said. "She moved to Bristol Bay in 1924 because of that influenza and plus the starvation that happened. We do have that history behind us and working with us. Let’s educate ourselves, let’s not make the same mistakes they did. I believe we have a road map here. Let's use that roadmap.”

Tilden plans to gather people to discuss education, prevention and what food people should stock if they are quarantined at home for two weeks.

Gina Carpenter is also sending information around to businesses in the Dillingham area. Carpenter’s goal is to ensure the community is on the same page for emergency planning.

You can find up-to-date information about the coronavirus on the CDC's website

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