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Health officials talk Bristol Bay COVID safety ahead of first fishing season without restrictions

 A patient gets tested by Camai clinic staff. 2020.
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services
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A patient gets tested by Camai clinic staff. 2020.

We’ve come a long way. That was the enduring message from state and local health care providers at a meeting on the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bristol Bay.

Mary Swain, the clinical director of the Camai Community Health Center in Naknek, recalled what the clinic faced at this time two years ago.

“We were talking about having to do testing for as many as 7,000 people,” she said. “How were we going to do that when at the peak of the 2020 season, the only place that could process any testing was a state lab?”

As the 2020 fishing season approached, Swain said the clinic and its partners dove into preparations, bracing for the wave of people expected to arrive. She said because of those precautions, no Bristol Bay Borough residents got COVID from a fishing industry worker that summer.

“That, to me, is spectacular,” she said. “We went weeks without cases in our community, as the influx of people came to our community.”

Last year, Camai expanded that testing to include more processors, as well as employees and visitors of sport fishing lodges and Katmai National Park & Preserve. This year, the clinic is providing testing at one processing plant during the herring and salmon seasons. And throughout the pandemic, it hasn’t charged anyone for a test thanks to federal funding.

The clinic’s health care efforts weren’t limited to testing and vaccines. Early on, Swain said they realized the community needed activities where people could interact with friends at a safe distance, so the clinic partnered with the school and the borough’s parks and rec department to buy skis for the public to use, and they also started a drive-in movie theater.

“It has built up to an activity that people really enjoy today,” she said. “It’s something very easy, very minimal cost that we could do to help our community just get out and enjoy each other.”

The region is approaching its first summer where there will be no mandatory safety requirements from state, local or Tribal governments for people coming into the region since the pandemic began.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Alaska is in a better place than where it was earlier this year, when cases hit record highs in the state. And right now, the state has one of the lowest death rates per capita in the country. But that doesn’t mean COVID is over.

“I had this conversation last night,” Zink recalled, “They said, ‘Why can’t we just be done with this?’ And I said, ‘You never want your doctor to come to you and say like, you know, ‘I’m done with heart attacks. They’re over. I’m done with broken legs, we’re beyond that.’ So you always want your health care team to be caring about your health, and making sure that the tools and resources are there for your accident, for your heart disease, or for your COVID.”

The U.S. has seen a slight rise in cases of the omicron variant BA.2.12.1. Zink said that’s caused an increase in cases on the East Coast, with a small bump in hospitalizations. She added the state will likely see more cases as that sub-variant spreads. But she said vaccines and COVID treatments are still effective.

“The same tools that worked against the other [variants] still work against this one. And that’s the big point I want to emphasize," Zink said. "But we are seeing right now… a big outbreak in a long term care facility in the southeast.”

Zink said she thinks COVID treatments are drastically underutilized — particularly the oral pill Paxlovid — and that people with COVID should ask their health care providers about them. Timing is also important — some antiviral drugs need to be taken within five days of the first symptoms. Both Bristol Bay's health corporation and the Camai clinic provide treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and orally-administered medications.

Swain, with the Camai clinic, also stressed that wearing masks is an easy way to stay safe.

“As you can see, I’m wearing mine today because we have a clinic full of people, and I don’t really want to infect anybody or anybody to infect me. So I do it for the protection of my family as well as Elders I’m around all the time,” she said.

The panelists recommend five days of isolation after testing positive; the day you test positive is day zero. They also strongly recommend that people who test positive wear a mask for an additional five days. Those with symptoms should wait 24 hours after their symptoms subside before ending their isolation. And no one should travel until 10 days after they test positive.

Swain said overall, it was thanks to the tireless work from the clinic staff that they were able to stay open and continue providing health care throughout the pandemic.

“My staff is the greatest. They have been working so hard just to keep this community safe and healthy,” she said. “Because of them, we have not closed our clinic to inpatient, walk-ins, or scheduled visits this entire pandemic, and we don’t intend to start now. If you need us, call us.”

The state reported 25 cases in the Bristol Bay region last week. Almost 65% of Alaskans five years of age and older are fully vaccinated, while almost 72% have received at least one shot.

Testing, vaccines and treatment:

The CDC Quarantine and Isolation calendar is a tool to help people determine the steps they can take to prevent COVID from spreading.

Take home tests are available at the Curyung Tribal Council building in Dillingham.

For information on COVID-19 vaccines, testing and treatment, contact the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation at 907-842-5201.

In the Bristol Bay Borough, call 907-246-6155 or email director@camaichc.org.

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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