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For Gov. Dunleavy, COVID-19 evokes century-old family loss to the flu in rural Alaska

Jun 19, 2020

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy stands with his wife, Rose, at his inauguration in 2018 in Kotzebue. Rose’s grandfather died of the flu in the 1920, which Dunleavy says has influenced his decisionmaking around the COVID-19 pandemic. (Office of the Governor)

As Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy faced his first set of decisions around the COVID-19 pandemic, a handful of memories swirled in his mind — including a century-old one that was unique to rural Alaska.

Dunleavy grew up in Pennsylvania. But his wife, Rose, is Inupiaq, raised in the Northwest Alaska village of Noorvik, and her mother once told Dunleavy a story that connects to the state’s traumatizing experience in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

“She was a young girl. Her father and she were sick at the same time — literally in bed next to each other,” he said. “And he died, from that flu.”

Dunleavy’s mother-in-law never told him what strain of flu killed her father, and his death came in the 1920s, after the pandemic strain had weakened. One expert said it would be hard to tell which particular virus was responsible.

“I think this is not something one can easily speculate on. People also die of the regular flu,” Peter Palese, a microbiology professor and flu expert at the Icahn School of Medicine, wrote in an email. “If the relative of the governor’s wife lived in a remote village, which had little prior exposure to flu, then infection by the 1918/19 pandemic virus or by a later, seasonal 1920s strain could have been lethal.”

Regardless of which virus it was, Dunleavy, in a phone interview, said he’s kept that history in mind while making decisions around the COVID-19 pandemic, which has evoked Alaska’s deeply traumatic losses during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

The worldwide death toll was more than 50 million people. The disease hit rural Alaska particularly hard: It killed as much as 8% of the Alaska Native population, according to one estimate.

Now, citing their remoteness and limited health-care infrastructure, Native villages have put in place some of the state’s most aggressive measures to contain COVID-19 in Alaska. The disease has killed 10 people and infected more than 500 in the state.

Dunleavy, who spent six years as a teacher in the village of Koyuk, said those vulnerabilities are not lost on him.

“I don’t have to read about that, or think or imagine it. I’ve lived it,” he said in a phone interview from his Anchorage office. “I’ve literally lived, living out there. And I understand the difference between the ability to deal with the health-care issue there, as opposed to here.”

Dunleavy was credited by health-care professionals with taking aggressive initial steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Alaska, like imposing a two-week quarantine on people arriving from out of state.

Those measures were successful in keeping the disease from overwhelming Alaska’s hospitals. But infection rates are now rising as Dunleavy has relaxed health mandates, saying there’s enough health-care infrastructure to handle more cases.

While a few positive tests have been recorded in rural Alaska, infections have been mostly concentrated in more urban parts of the state. And Noorvik, the 700-person village where Dunleavy’s wife grew up, has not seen a single case yet, said Elsie Sampson, an elder and resident.

Some residents there are getting impatient for new information about the disease, and frustrated with how long it’s persisting, Sampson, a cousin of Dunleavy’s wife, said in a phone interview Thursday.

But the village, she added, has been working with state medical professionals, and she said Dunleavy’s experience in the region helps him grasp what its residents are facing.

“Every little bit of information helps,” Sampson said. With this information he has — and because he’s lived in our region and been in our region — he’s made the time to listen to our people and be around us long enough to understand where we’re at, and give us the opportunity to share what we think.”