As Maniilaq details Kotzebue’s first COVID-19 case, city officials worry over enforcing testing

Kotzebue City Hall (Photo courtesy of City of Kotzebue)

On Tuesday, May 19, Kotzebue saw its first positive case of COVID-19. 

Local health officials said they were pleased that the infected individual had volunteered to be tested, which ultimately led to finding the case. However, some city officials have raised concerns over how effective voluntary testing will be moving forward, and how much authority the city has to mandate testing. 

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Officials from Maniilaq Association, the regional health care provider, initially gave few details about Kotzebue’s first COVID-19 case. They said the infected person had arrived in Kotzebue by plane and had voluntarily submitted to a screening at the airport. After they tested positive, they self-quarantined. 

During a more detailed presentation to the Kotzebue City Council, Tim Gilbert, president and CEO of Maniilaq, said the circumstances surrounding Kotzebue’s first case were not surprising. 

“As we discussed many times before,” he said, “we felt like if the COVID-19 was going to come to our region, it was going to walk off the plane from somebody from the outside.”

Like all passengers on flights incoming to Kotzebue, the man who tested positive was asked to fill out a declaration form, which asks where someone has traveled from and whether they have any underlying medical symptoms.

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Gilbert says that every passenger on the flight into Kotzebue that day took a voluntary rapid COVID-19 test. They were tested at the FBX Aviation Services building right next to the Ralph Wien Airport. 

“While they’re waiting for the results of that test, they’re asked to remain in the area and not wander off and go to AC (Alaska Commercial Company store) or do whatever,” Gilbert said. “For this particular gentleman, he stayed in the area, didn’t go into town, didn’t interact.”

The Raplh Wien Memorial Airport in Kotzebue. (Wikimedia commons photo)

When the test came back positive, Gilbert said, a Maniilaq employee drove the infected individual to the Maniilaq Health Center’s respiratory clinic. After a health screening, the passenger was then taken to the Nullagvik Hotel.

“They have set up a couple floors as COVID rooms, and that’s where he started his quarantine on Tuesday, and that’s where he remains with strict instructions to not leave the room,” Gilbert said.

Sharon Kurz, Maniilaq Vice President of Health Services, also presented with Gilbert and described the precautions Maniilaq staff took while interacting with the patient.

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“Only individuals who were appropriately gowned in PPE (personal protective equipment) in our own vehicles that were thoroughly cleaned after to make sure there could be no contamination of other individuals,” Kurz said.

Kurz says the 19 passengers on the flight have been quarantining at the hotel since arriving in Kotzebue. 

“Unfortunately for the unhappy travelers, it’s still somewhere between three and 14 days before we’ll know whether any of those exposures resulted in somebody else contracting the COVID-19,” Kurz said. “But, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Kurz said there are two types of COVID-19 tests that Maniilaq can offer. One test is conducted with a swab that is sent to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She says those results come back in about 48 hours. Maniilaq has access to 5,000 to 10,000 of those tests. 

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The other test is the rapid test performed at the airports. 

“We can probably only do about 100 of those and then we’ll run out,” Kurz said. “And that’s why we would want to use those on the people who have to move that day from an Alaska Airlines flight to go to a village.”

Both Kurz and Gilbert highlighted that the patient’s willingness to volunteer for the test is ultimately what allowed them to detect it. However, Kurz said, that despite efforts from Maniilaq to test every individual who comes in for a medical procedure, a concerning number of Kotzebue residents are refusing to test for COVID-19. 

“We’re still having trouble getting Kotzebue individuals to get tested when they come back from Anchorage or other traveling events,” Kurz said.

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 (Flickr photo courtesy of NIAID-RML)

Several city council members, including Eugene Smith, thanked Maniilaq for testing the individual, as well as the individual himself for volunteering. However, Smith said, he remains worried for all passengers arriving. 

“That was a big concern of mine, even in the last meeting, was why are we not mandatory testing everybody that gets off that plane,” Smith said. “According to our clerk, Dillingham is doing that, and is there a way to figure that it’s not a volunteer process?”

Gilbert said that there are varying rules and jurisdictions in communities that allow some more weight in enforcing testing. He said tribes have stronger enforcement policies, pointing to Buckland as an example.

“They meet people at the airport,” Gilbert said. “They contact Bering Air to say, ‘How many of our tribal members are scheduled to fly in today?’ So we’re working closely with tribes to see if they will put some teeth in their proclamations so that we can use that and show it to passengers who are village-bound.”

Councilman Matt Tekker proposed an incentive policy to increase testing in Kotzebue. 

“My question was, ‘Why couldn’t we give an incentive saying: If you don’t take the test, you have to quarantine for 14 days, but if you take the test, and it shows negative, you still have to quarantine for like two days,’” Tekker said. “That way it gives people that two days where they can generally feel their symptoms change at that time.” 

Kurz, with Maniilaq, said that plan could be complicated. Someone could test negative, but then develop symptoms later and test positive. She said a good way to make sure people are getting tested would be for employers to individually incentivize their employees to take the test. She also said that Nome has posted a police officer at the airport to encourage testing, and she believes that has resulted in more tests in that area. 

For now, the number of positive COVID-19 cases is still just the one, and he remains in quarantine.

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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