Three new COVID cases detected in region
The Bering Strait / Norton Sound region saw three new cases of COVID-19 this week, one in Unalakleet and two in Nome. There are currently five active cases in the region, three in Nome, one in Unalakleet and one in Golovin.
The first new case was detected on Monday, March 1 in Unalakleet. The patient is a Unalakleet resident who had not recently traveled, and the case was attributed to community spread. The positive result followed community-wide testing after another Unalakleet resident tested positive in Anchorage on Friday after recently leaving the community, leaving open the possibility that they had been in Unalakleet during their infectious period.
Soon after, two more Unalakleet residents reported positive test results from Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. However, ANMC later announced that the results were actually negative and had been misread.
In a regular conference call, NSHC Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said large-scale testing facilities like ANMC that processed many tests at once were prone to “clerical machine errors,” but that the errors had been caught by an automatic double-checking mechanism. The region’s smaller Abbott ID Now units don’t run the same risk, he said.
Still, the three positive announcements concerned many regional residents, and over the weekend the school district decided to cancel planned high school basketball games between Unalakleet and Nome.
NSHC then started organizing community-wide testing and detected Monday’s case. As of Monday, they had tested about 50 percent of the Unalakleet, and Dr. Peterson said they were also using the effort as an opportunity to get more people vaccinated.
Incoming travelers into Unalakleet are required to test negative before departing Nome or Anchorage, test at the airport in Unalakleet, and quarantine for 14 days or seven days with a negative test on day seven.
Then on Tuesday, March 2, NSHC announced two more new cases, both in Nome. One was an Anchorage resident who tested positive while following the City of Nome’s testing requirements for travelers, and the other was a Nome resident who had not traveled recently. The latter case was attributed to community spread.
Last Tuesday, Alaska had its first case of the P.1 variant – known as the Brazilian variant – in an Alaska resident with no known travel history. At the time, the patient was the sixth case of the variant detected in the United States, making Alaska one of only five states where the variant has been found.
On Wednesday, a report released by scientists from the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory and University of Alaska announced that they had detected 10 cases of the variant B.1.429, widely known as the California variant. Four were detected in the Anchorage, Mat-Su area, five in Fairbanks and one in the Y-K Delta/Aleutian region. Evidence suggests that both of these variants are more contagious than the normal COVID virus, and they also appear to have mutations that make them more resistant to antibodies developed through previous infection or vaccination. Dr. Peterson said the best thing the region can do is still to get vaccinated. He said that while available vaccines may not be as effective against the variants, they likely still offer significant protection, and that it is critical for the region to get as fully vaccinated as possible before any of the variants can gain a foothold.
On Friday, the Food & Drug Administration announced that it had given Emergency Use Authorization to the single-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. The new vaccine was created using a modified common cold virus, a traditional vaccine design method different from the mRNA technology used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
In clinical trials, the new vaccine was shown to be 85 percent effective against severe disease, and it can survive at regular freezer temperatures for up to three months. Dr. Peterson said the region may get its first shipment as early as next week. He said the vaccine was a good option for people wary of mRNA technology, and that it would allow village clinics to start giving on-demand vaccine to walk-in patients.
The City of Nome is also opening up the council chambers in City Hall to an evening vaccination clinic starting next week and extending through the month of March. City Hall will be open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for people who are unable to get vaccinated at the hospital during regular business hours. Signups for the clinic are available at picktime.com/NSHC.
Alaska Airlines will resume their second daily passenger flight from Anchorage to Nome on May 20, according to Public Affairs Manager Tim Thompson. In addition to flight 151, there will be again flight 153, following the same routing and schedule as before the pandemic.
As of Tuesday, the state of Alaska had reported 58,837 cases, 1,286 hospitalizations and 302 deaths.
In the Nome, Bering Strait and Norton Sound region, there have been 319 cases, six hospitalizations and no deaths.