COVID-19 cases rise, Stebbins in lockdown
By Julia Lerner
In the last week, Norton Sound Health Corporation has identified 31 new COVID-19 cases across the region, bringing the total number of active cases in Nome, Norton Sound and Bering Strait to 38.
On Tuesday, July 27, five individuals around the region tested positive for COVID-19. Three patients are in Stebbins and two are regional residents in unidentified communities. All five cases are deemed community spread and close contacts were notified, NSHC reports.
Another three people tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, July 28. One NSHC employee tested positive in a community spread case and the two remaining cases are travel related. One is a regional resident in an unidentified community and the other is does not live in the region.
Over the weekend, six cases were identified: Five in Stebbins and one in Nome. In Stebbins, one person tested positive on Friday, two tested positive on Sunday and two tested positive early Monday morning. The Nome resident tested positive on Sunday. All six cases are considered community spread.
On Monday afternoon, NSHC identified 18 new COVID-19 cases in Stebbins, bringing the total number of cases in the village to 31.
“Stebbins is currently under a community lockdown,” explained NSHC President and CEO Angie Gorn during the weekly COVID-19 conference call. “We’re going to continue our partnership with Stebbins until there are no new cases identified for at least 14 days.”
This is not the first time Stebbins has seen an outbreak. “Stebbins experienced a significant outbreak last fall,” Gorn said. “At one point in time, there were over 70 cases in the village last fall, and it took nearly two months to recover from it, so we’re all aware of how community spread can be significant and reach a lot of people quickly, overnight sometimes.”
During the lockdown in the village, residents will not be allowed to visit between households or other communities, Gorn said. The village has also reinstituted a universal mask mandate and will be limiting the number of people who can visit the village store and the laundromat at one time. The village has instituted a 10 p.m. curfew and will also close bingo for the time being.
In Stebbins, only about 45 percent of the residents are vaccinated, which might explain why they’re reporting higher case numbers than neighboring communities, according to NSHC medical director Dr. Mark Peterson.
Though the state has not confirmed the presence of the Delta variant here in Nome, Dr. Peterson is certain it’s here, and says it spreads 200 times more easily than the original COVID-19 strain.
“This is a very infectious virus,” Dr. Peterson said during the weekly conference call. “When it gets into an area where a lot of people are unvaccinated, it’s going to infect a lot of people.”
Dr. Peterson told community members that NSHC hoped to keep the number of cases in Stebbins under 20 during Monday’s weekly COVID-19 conference call. By Tuesday morning, that goal was not met.
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear their masks or face coverings in most situations, but Dr. Peterson says Nomeites and regional residents should consider resuming mask use for further protection.
“What Norton Sound is recommending is a universal mask mandate for any community that has a high rate of spread,” including in Stebbins and Nome, he said. “We recommend that everybody, vaccinated or not, wear a mask when you’re inside. The City has not made that mandate yet, but the CDC guidance is masks and Norton Sound is recommending it.”
Dr. Peterson is encouraging City of Nome leadership to reinstate mandatory COVID-19 testing at the airport, particularly as teachers and other residents begin to return to Nome for the new school year.
More than 90 percent of the Nome Public Schools staff is fully vaccinated, Dr. Peterson said, but he said he doesn’t know about vaccination rates amongst eligible students.
According to the school’s American Rescue Plan Act Mitigation draft plan for the 2021-2022 school year, students and staff will be required to wear masks in any school building where less than 80 percent of the school population is vaccinated, meaning they will be mandatory in elementary school buildings, where students are not yet eligible for vaccination. Dr. Peterson hopes the Pfizer vaccine will be approved for young children (ages 2-11) later this year.
Nomeites can continue to get their COVID-19 vaccines in several locations across the city, including at the Nome Airport and the NSHC pharmacy. NSHC has rolled out a travelling vaccine van called “the Wellness Bus,” which will be parked at the AC store parking lot on Wednesday mornings. Testing and vaccinations will also be available at the Liitfik Wellness and Training Center on Tuesday mornings.
In Alaska, the COVID-19 alert status is high and case counts continue to rise. Between Sunday and Monday, 226 new COVID cases were identified. Across the state, there have been a total of 76,237 COVID-19 cases and 389 deaths (382 residents and seven non-residents) since the pandemic started. As of Monday, there are 99 current hospitalizations of COVID patients and with 18 COVID patients on ventilators.
In Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region, there have been a total of 434 COVID-19 cases, eight hospitalizations and zero deaths.