Here’s how the Bethel hospital is preparing to respond to coronavirus

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska. (Greg Kim/KYUK)

There are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Alaska yet, but the state’s leading health officials expect that situation to change. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is preparing to respond to possible cases in the region.

“We are staying on top of this every week, sometimes every day, depending on what is going on, because it’s a rapidly evolving situation,” said YKHC Vice President of Hospital Services Jim Sweeney.

YKHC says it’s remaining abreast of the updates coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and meeting regularly with the State of Alaska, along with other hospitals across the state, to share information and coordinate testing and care of patients possibly carrying the coronavirus.

YKHC is also meeting internally every week to plan its response to the virus if it emerges at a village clinic or the regional hospital in Bethel. It’s running regular drills.

“A typical drill might have someone coming into the outpatient clinic and reporting that they have symptoms that are consistent with COVID,” Sweeney said. “And that they were traveling to one of the countries that are on the list of restricted travel from. And, in that case, what we’d do is get the people they’ve come in contact with, get them a mask, and put them in a negative pressure room.”

This room controls the way that air leaves a room, and cleans the air as it leaves.

“And then they’d activate our incident command program internally, so that we can respond to them and get them tested and go from there,” Sweeney said.

Lab testing for the virus is being done in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

YKHC is also increasing its inventory of personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns and gloves, at its Bethel hospital and village clinics. With COVID-19 spreading from person to person in Washington State, YKHC Chief of Staff Ellen Hodges says that the virus could reach Alaska soon.

“Most cases are likely to be mild, but there are people who are at higher risk,” Hodges said.

That includes the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases.

If someone in a village is suspected of carrying a mild case of coronavirus, a health aide would know what to do: place a mask on the patient and try to keep them from traveling and coming into contact with other people, Hodges said. The health aide would remain in contact with health providers in Bethel for ongoing instructions. More severely ill patients would be transported to Bethel and possibly Anchorage. 

Hodges says that methods for preventing the spread of coronavirus are the same as other infectious diseases like the common cold.

“We can’t mention hand washing enough, I don’t think,” Hodges said. “And staying home when you’re sick or avoiding others when you’re sick.”

People in communities or households without running water or a limited supply of clean water are advised to use hand wipes or hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, health officials say. People who are not sick do not need to wear masks. Following these guidelines can also prevent the spread of other viruses currently circulating in the region, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, which can be especially serious for infants.

Hodges also recommends that people get their annual flu shot. It won’t protect against coronavirus, but it does help protect against the flu on an individual and community level and could reduce the strain on the health care system if a coronavirus outbreak occurs, she said.

According to the CDC, symptoms for coronavirus may appear two to 14 days after exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. YKHC recommends that people go to the CDC website for up-to-date and accurate information on the virus.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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