As coronavirus cases rise in hotspots around southwest Alaska, the Native Village of Goodnews Bay wants to test travelers coming into the community. But the regional health corporation is reserving its limited testing supplies for other cases.
The Native Village of Goodnews Bay has had a travel ban in place since May. On October 16, the Traditional Village Council renewed the ban on unauthorized travelers coming into the village; people returning to the community must quarantine for 14 days — and get tested.
But the Goodnews health clinic isn’t allowed to give rapid tests to people just because they have traveled. The Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation operates the clinic, and it reserves those tests for people with symptoms and urgent medical needs. Rapid tests are also the only ones the health corporation is providing to villages.
In mid-October, Tribal Administrator Carla Nanok sent a letter to the state and to the health corporation asking for them to allow for testing of travelers.
“What the Native Village of Goodnews Bay would like to see is for the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation and the state to allow the clinic to test travellers coming in at the five- to eight-day mark,” she said.
Since then, the Traditional Village Council issued a hunker-down order on Nov. 3 that requires masks and six-foot social distancing in public places, and bans all non-essential travel. But Nanok said they still want to be able to test travelers.
Goodnews Bay lies between the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay. That means services in the community come from different regions; it receives healthcare from BBAHC, while the school is in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.
Nanok said there are currently no cases in the village, but the Y-K Delta has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases over the past month. The region has the highest average daily case rate in the state over a 14-day period. Goodnews Bay witnessed spikes in communities like Quinhagak — and it wants to take action to prevent the spread of the disease.
Nanok said that because the community doesn’t have extensive medical resources, they also want to screen any potential case from entering.
“It definitely put pressure on us to protect our community, and hopefully prevent the spread of COVID-19 out here. ‘Cause we lack in resources," she explained. "We don’t have a doctor here like any other place, you know, Dillingham. So it definitely put pressure on us to act.”
In its response to Goodnews, BBAHC said it could not make an exception to its testing protocol at this time. It cited “extremely limited” testing supplies, saying an exception could reduce access for people in other areas of the region.
BBAHC said that tests are prioritized for people most at risk of contracting the virus — specifically those who need to get medical procedures, are close contacts of a previous case, or who have medical emergencies.
It also pointed out that since the incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days, having a rapid test five days after returning may create a false sense of security among travelers.
Still, the health corporation said it is looking at staffing and resources “to consider an expansion in testing practice as well as locations.”
In a call at the end of October, state officials said communities can request testing kits and supplies through the Emergency Operations Center.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that while the state doesn’t have tests for communities to purchase, it is working to provide additional rapid testing machines to rural communities across Alaska.
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