Region has 101 active COVID cases
By Julia Lerner
COVID-19 cases in the region hit record highs this week, reaching 101 active cases in the region on Tuesday morning. In the last week, Norton Sound Health Corporation has identified 86 new COVID-19 cases across several villages. Of the active cases 86 are in Stebbins, two are in Nome, one is in Unalakleet, one is in White Mountain, and 11 are in unidentified villages.
On Tuesday, August 3, NSHC identified 15 new cases in Stebbins. All 15 cases are considered community spread.
The next day, three additional cases were identified in Stebbins and three were diagnosed in unidentified communities. Though the patients involved opted to not release the names of their villages, village leadership is notified when an individual tests positive in their community.
Four additional cases were identified in Stebbins and two were diagnosed in unidentified communities on Thursday, August 5. On Friday, August 6, an individual in Nome tested positive for COVID-19.
Case totals continued to rise over the weekend in Stebbins, where 10 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, and 17 tested positive on Sunday. Two individuals in unidentified villages also tested positive on Sunday.
On Monday, August 9, NSHC identified 29 new COVID-19 cases in the region. One person tested positive in Unalakleet, one is a White Mountain resident, five were in unidentified villages, and 22 were in Stebbins.
All 86 individuals who tested positive have been instructed to safely isolate. NSHC is continuing to notify close contacts of positive cases so individuals can continue to get tested.
The current outbreak in Stebbins is predominately Delta variant cases, according to NSHC medical director Dr. Mark Peterson. The Delta variant, which currently makes up 96 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Alaska, is significantly more infectious than the original COVID-19 strain.
NSHC is adjusting quarantine protocols in Stebbins from seven days to 14 in an attempt to slow the spread.
“Entire households are turning up positive,” Dr. Peterson told participants during the weekly COVID-19 conference call on Monday. “The situation in Stebbins is basically just a lot of close contacts, and a lot of close contacts are turning positive.”
Dr. Peterson said even fully vaccinated people in communities with outbreaks are at risk of developing and spreading COVID-19.
Stebbins’ patient zero, a resident who travelled back to the village from Anchorage in late July, was fully vaccinated at the time of arrival, and didn’t develop symptoms for several days after returning. The person was the first COVID-19 case that began the outbreak in the village earlier this month.
“I got vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” the person told the Nugget. “I came back home, and I was following protocol, and I was thinking ‘I’m safe, I’m vaccinated,’ but then I started feeling sick.”
The individual arrived in Stebbins on Tuesday, July 20, and didn’t develop symptoms until the weekend.
“I started feeling congested, but I thought it was just [a cold] that everybody else had,” they said. “I thought I had the flu, or I thought I had a sickness from smoking too many cigarettes on Friday.”
The time period between patient zero’s arrival and the onset of the symptoms was the most contagious time to others in the community. On Saturday, the person developed a cough and congestion worsened. On Sunday, the patient had a headache and a slight fever, and the cough was significantly worse with “yellow-ish slime”, along with a loss of sense of taste and smell.
“I visited with someone on Saturday, and after that, they got really sick too,” patient zero said. “They were vaccinated, too, and so that’s when I started to wonder if I got exposed to COVID when I travelled. They told me their kids got sick, too.”
Patient zero was not aware of being sick with COVID-19 prior to testing, but has since recovered from the illness.
“I feel so guilty,” the patient said. “I did not know I had this. I’m vaccinated. I followed protocol. I just had no idea I was spreading it.”
The village of Stebbins has instituted a strict lockdown policy to limit the spread of the current COVID-19 outbreak. Residents are not allowed to visit or travel between houses, and there is a village-wide curfew of 10 p.m. The Native store in the community is no longer accepting in-person visitors and will only take orders over the phone for delivery. The lockdown will continue until the village has 14 days straight without positive COVID-19 diagnoses.
This is the second COVID-19 outbreak Stebbins has seen, though the Delta strain is much more “catchy.”
“The Stebbins situation does not surprise us at all,” Dr. Peterson said. “Delta is so much more infectious. They had 65 cases at the last outbreak, and we’re in the 70s now. Actually, I’m surprised we’re not at more cases just because it is so infectious.”
NSHC is encouraging all communities in the region, including Nome, to resume social distancing and masking in public indoor areas regardless of vaccination status. The hospital is also encouraging unvaccinated individuals to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
“Getting back to basics, it’s just all about getting vaccinated,” Dr. Peterson said. “About 30 percent of all the cases we’re seeing in our region now are in individuals under the age of 19 and fewer than 10 percent of cases are in individuals over the age of 65. That’s because they’ve gotten vaccinated.”
The COVID vaccine does not completely eliminate the possibility of catching COVID, but it significantly reduces the risk of serious symptoms and death.
“People who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 have a small chance of catching the virus, but they are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus than unvaccinated people,” according to a NSHC press release. “According to state data, since the beginning of 2021, 94 percent of hospitalizations and 97 percent of deaths from COVID-19 were unvaccinated people.”
Across Alaska, there have been a total of 78,701 COVID-19 cases with an average of 250 new cases per day; 1,914 hospitalizations, with 114 current hospitalizations. Eighty-four of 120 ICU beds in Alaska are occupied as of Tuesday; ten people are on vents. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Alaska saw 400 deaths of residents and non-residents.
In Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region, there have been a total of 541 cases, eight hospitalizations and zero deaths.