COVID cases rise to 100 in region
By Peter Loewi
As active COVID-19 cases hit 100, in front of a masked public, a masked Nome Common Council on Monday voted to advance an extension of an emergency ordinance designed to give the city manager the power to swiftly take measures aimed at reducing the impact and spread of COVID-19. The second reading, and vote, will take place on Monday, January 24. The emergency ordinance will sunset at the end of January, if the extension fails.
City Manager Glenn Steckman explained during the Council meeting that he was asking for the tools in case of an explosion of cases, as the rest of the country is seeing right now. The City is in the process of buying 4,000 at-home test kits, and the State is sending 800. These will be two-step kits, which people are asked to use once, and then again 36 hours later. Each individual test is accurate, but only tells a snapshot in time, thus the guidance to test twice. Positives are to be reported to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, as well as to the Norton Sound Health Corporation.
The City will distribute tests and masks to the Chamber of Commerce, which will in turn distribute them to businesses. Steckman also said that they are getting people trained to properly fit N95 masks. Councilmember Meghan Sigvanna Topkok, wearing one herself, agreed that N95s are the safest kind of mask, which is especially important because the Omicron variant is so contagious.
Testing and mask wearing as of Monday were not mandated, Steckman said, but highly encouraged. Councilmember Mark Johnson reminded that the emergency powers served Nome well during previous spikes. However, Councilmember Scot Henderson questioned how much longer the emergency ordinance would be extended as Nome has been operating under it since spring 2020.
Councilmembers Jerald Brown, Mark Johnson, Scot Henderson and Meghan Sig Topkok voted unanimously to advance the measure for further discussion in two weeks’ time. Councilmembers Doug Johnson and Adam Martinson were absent and excused.
As of Tuesday, January 11, there are 100 active cases in the region: 45 in Nome, 19 in St. Michael, 14 in Unalakleet, 12 in Elim, three in Stebbins, three in Teller, two in Shishmaref, one in Shaktoolik and one in Golovin.
NSHC identified 24 new cases in seven communities on January 4, 2022. Nome had 12 cases, seven of which were travel-related, two were close contacts, and three were from community spread. Elim had five, all of which were community spread. Shishmaref and Unalakleet both had two, one travel-related and one close contact each. St. Michael, Golovin, and Little Diomede each had one, all of which were travel-related.
On January 5, 17 cases were identified in six communities. Of the eight cases in Nome, four were travel-related, and four were community spread. Four in Unalakleet, three of which were close contacts, and one was community spread. The one case in Stebbins was from community spread. St. Michael and Teller both had one travel-related case involving an NSHC employee.
On Friday, January 7, 24 new cases identified. Nine cases were in Nome, of which two were travel-related, three were close contacts, and four were community spread. Three were NSHC employees. Seven cases were in St. Michael, of which one was travel-related, five were close contacts, and one was community spread. In Elim, there were five cases, one of which was travel related and four were close contacts. There were two travel-related cases in Unalakleet and one in Golovin.
Over the weekend, NSHC identified 71 new cases in seven communities. 41 were in Nome, 22 were in St. Michael, four were in Unalakleet, and one each in Elim, Shaktoolik, Golovin, and Stebbins. Of the cases in Nome, 28 were close contacts, six were from community spread, and five were from travel. One of the cases was an NSHC employee. 15 of the cases in St. Michael were close contacts, five were community spread, and two were travel-related. Three cases in Unalakleet were travel-related, and one was from a close contact. The cases in Elim, Golovin, and Stebbins were close contacts, and the Shaktoolik case was travel-related.
On Monday, January 10, NSHC identified 43 new cases. 13 were in St. Michael, 10 in Nome, eight in Unalakleet, six in Elim, two each in Shishmaref and Teller and one in both Shaktoolik and Stebbins. Of the 13 cases in St. Michael, nine were close contacts, three were community spread, and one was travel-related. In Nome, five were community spread, four were close contacts, and one was travel-related. One was an NSHC employee. In Unalakleet, five were close contacts, two were travel-related, and one was community spread. All of the cases in Elim, Shishmaref, and Teller were close contacts. The case in Shaktoolik was travel-related, and the case in Stebbins was through community spread.
Monday’s Tribal Leader’s call opened with a sobering announcement, that the active case count had gone up significantly since last week. Norton Sound Health Corporation Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson said that they’re seeing “around 20 cases a day across the region. That’s a lot more than in other times during the pandemic.” He added, “it’ll probably be kind of a rough January.”
He repeated what has been the mantra for months: “Get vaccinated, get boosted, that’s really the way to protect yourself from hospitalization and death.” The CDC recently updated their guidance for those who received the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, saying adults are eligible for a booster five months – previously six – after completing their initial series. Adolescents age 12 to 17 are only eligible for a Pfizer booster, but are encouraged to do so after five months, as well.
Nationwide, the CDC also recommended against traveling to Canada due to rising case counts. Hospitals are having nurses and others work despite testing positive due to staffing shortages, and teachers across the country are speaking out against potentially dangerous work settings.
The Chicago Teacher’s Union voted to not hold in-person learning due to the high transmissibility of the virus. The negotiations were long stuck on whether testing should be opt in or opt out. After four days, compromise was made to randomly test 10 percent of the student body. This would be an increase in the testing level.
In California, teachers at the Oakland Unified School District staged a “sick-out,” asking for N95 or KN95 masks for all students, and twice a week testing for everyone on campus. One teacher estimated that half of all students and teachers were out sick.
Here in Golovin, the school went to “Code Red” after a second teacher tested positive. Combined with teacher and in-service days, this pushed the start of the new semester back a week. While NSHC supports keeping kids in schools, Dr. Peterson said that “what Golovin is doing is just fine. We’ll support that.”
“Just in general, I think that making a community-wide mask mandate for the month of January, I think that’s a smart idea, with lots of Omicron going around,” he added.
Dr. Peterson explained the updated definitions of close contacts and when people need to isolate or test, and encouraged testing with even a minor cough or cold. He also welcomed people testing who didn’t have symptoms, saying in an interview with the Nugget that “we have a high level of testing in the region.”
The updated CDC guidance has caused a lot of confusion due to changing timelines for quarantine and isolation and changing definitions. If testing positive, regardless of vaccination status, the CDC says that one should stay home for “at least five days” in isolation. If symptoms get better, one can come out of isolation after five days and if one is fever-free for 24 hours. One should continue to wear a well-fitted mask, avoid travel and avoid being around high risk people for 10 full days. If symptoms do not get better, consult a doctor before ending isolation.
If exposed to the virus and not up-to-date on vaccinations, meaning fully vaccinated and boosted if eligible, one should quarantine for at least five days, and get tested at least five days after exposure. If one develops symptoms, immediately isolate. Either way, one should wear a well-fitted mask, avoid travel and avoid being around high-risk people for 10 full days.
If one is exposed to the virus and has been fully vaccinated and boosted if eligible, or had viral-test confirmed COVID-19 in the last 90 days, the CDC says that one does not need to stay home unless symptoms develop. If one develops symptoms, isolate immediately and get tested. You should wear a well-fitted mask, avoid travel, and avoid being around high-risk people for 10 full days after exposure.
Asked about vaccination rates in the region, Dr. Peterson said the entire region is 72 percent fully vaccinated. Alaska has a vaccination rate of 56 percent fully vaccinated. The rest of the country is 62 percent. “Our vaccine percentages are very good,” he said, as nine of 15 communities have a vaccination rate of over 75 percent. The breakdown is: Brevig Mission: 54 percent; Elim: 75 percent; Gambell 75 percent; Golovin 85 percent; Koyuk 61 percent; Little Diomede 53 percent; Nome 84 percent; St. Michael 62 percent; Savoonga 69 percent; Shaktoolik 68 percent; Shishmaref 58 percent; Stebbins 45 percent; Teller 54 percent; Unalakleet 74 percent; Wales 82 percent; White Mountain 81percent.
As of January 10, 2022, the United States had 61 million 584 thousand 415 reported cases, and 837 thousand 911 reported deaths due to COVID-19.
As of the morning of January 11, Alaska had seen 162,626 cases, 3,290 hospitalizations and 948 deaths since the pandemic started.
In Nome and the Norton Sound and Bering Strait region, there have been 2,447 cases, 21 hospitalizations and three deaths reported.