Major COVID outbreak puts Savoonga into lockdown

A couple people wait in the lobby of a health care clinic, wearing masks.
The entrance lobby of the health clinic in Savoonga, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sophia DeSalvo/KNOM)

Roughly 15% of residents in the remote community of Savoonga have COVID-19, the Norton Sound Health Corporation said this week.

Savoonga is on St. Lawrence Island, out in the Bering Sea. The health corporation on Monday reported 115 COVID cases in the community of less than 800 people. The most recent 55 cases are considered community spread.

The community is under lockdown and movements are limited, said Delbert Pungowiyi, a tribal member of the Native Village of Savoonga.

“Eighty-plus percent of our adults are fully vaccinated, and I think that is making a positive impact on the effects of COVID,” said Pungowiyi. “So Savoonga has done a complete lockdown right now. We can venture out to the post office and check our boxes, a few people at a time that can go in there. Everyone has to wear their masks.”

The local store is only accepting orders by phone, said Pungowiyi.

Last week, Nome’s City Manager Glenn Steckman said the health corporation had recently done significant testing for COVID-19 in Savoonga. That may factor into why so many cases popped up so quickly. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 began with six cases in Savoonga on Oct. 26. Two weeks later, the local case count reached the highest on record for the community since the pandemic hit Western Alaska.

Pungowiyi worries about elders in the community.

“But I do believe they’ve been fully vaccinated. So far there have been no serious medevacs or hospitalizations that I have heard of,” Pungowiyi said.

Pungowiyi noted that Savoonga ran out of isolated quarantine locations for residents who test positive, as the community is experiencing a housing crisis. Many multi-generational families share a two-bedroom home, fitting eight to 10 people in a space meant for four.

Due to the massive spike in COVID-19 cases, the Bering Strait School District has issued “high risk” status for the Hogarth-Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial School in Savoonga. There are at least 20 positive cases among students, according to the district.

Supplies and aid are being sent to Savoonga from relatives and donors across the state.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.