Southwest Alaska village of Nunapitchuk grapples with flooding and coronavirus

Nunapitchuk is grappling with the coronavirus and with flooding at the same time. (Courtesy of Jacob Tobeluk)

There are two confirmed positive coronavirus cases in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta so far: one in the hub of Bethel and the other in the small village of Nunapitchuk. Now, Nunapitchuk residents are grappling with a positive case of COVID-19 on the heels of the worst flooding in several years.

On May 15, Nunapitchuk leaders got a call from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation with news that villages across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have been trying to avoid for the past two months: Someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus was now in their village.

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“My youngest daughter loves to go out to socialize,” said Jacob Tobeluk, a resident. “The first thing I did, my wife called our youngest daughter and told her to come home.”

Tobeluk said that the village of 500 quickly became a ghost town. He said that closing down everything is very strange this time of year.

“It’s bewildering, in a sense. You are usually active this time of year. Fishing, hunting, gathering greens, you know, doing all this stuff, and you are sharing,” Tobeluk said. “A lot of sharing goes on at this time.”

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That isn’t happening anymore. Instead of sharing the first catch of whitefish with everyone as is normal, residents can only visit family to grab something essential. The village is under lockdown, and it had not been lifted as of Monday. Mayor Noah Wise said that the store and gas station are closed as well.

“No visitors allowed in, anyway. No transportation of any type. All airlines are closed to come up here,” Wise said.

Wise said that the village will still accept mail and freight. The infected person traveled from Anchorage to Bethel, where they volunteered to get tested outside of the Alaska Airlines terminal. YKHC is offering free testing to everyone who steps off the plane because the only way the coronavirus will reach the Y-K Delta is through travelers; only about half accept.

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Alaska Airlines is the only commercial airline connecting the Y-K Delta to the rest of the world, and only offers one flight per day during the week. YKHC hoped to catch positive cases at the door before they headed into Bethel or a smaller community like Nunapitchuk. This time, their efforts paid off. A test result came back positive on May 15.

YKHC immediately dispatched a team made up of a physician, nurse, lab technician, and two environmental health workers to the village. Over the weekend, the team tested 300 people in the village with a rapid-testing kit. Everyone tested negative. YKHC has also sent in swabs for lab testing. The person who tested positive was again tested. This time, the test result came up negative. YKHC said that the person must have been nearing the end of the infection when they came through Bethel, which would be the reason for the negative second result. 

The team handed out masks, and recommended that the person who tested positive and their close contacts remain quarantined for 14 days, and that residents shelter in place for 10. YKHC said that they will send the team out to follow up should the village need it. Wise said that leaders will make a decision about opening up the store and gas station later this week.

“That’s when we’ll get our results back,” Wise said.

Wise was among the 300 people tested in Nunapitchuk. He’s hunkering at home with his wife, son, daughter, and grandchild. He described the testing as scary for people doing it the first time. 

“And really ticklish and bad at the same time,” Wise said. 

Meanwhile, the village is recovering from some of the worst flooding in years. A big melt of snowpack and ice sent a lot of water down the Kuskokwim River and its tributaries. Nunapitchuk sits near the Johnson River, and got flooded from high water in both waterways. Wise said that the water has just started receding in the last couple of days.

Community leaders declared a state of emergency over the flooding last week, just a few days before they got the news that coronavirus had reached their village.

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