Remote Alaska Villages Isolate Themselves Further in Effort to Shield Against Coronavirus

22 Mar

by Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News

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The Anchorage Daily News is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Most small Alaska villages can be reached only by plane or snowmobile. Many still harbor the intergenerational scars from previous epidemics of influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis, all of which killed thousands of Alaska Natives.

Now, some of those villages are choosing to further isolate themselves in hopes of delaying the arrival of the coronavirus, tribal and village leaders say.

As of Friday, a number of villages said they were banning outright all nonemergency travel to and from their tiny, farflung communities. Others were asking that any visitors who might try to land via small propeller planes in the communities of 100 to 500 people first seek tribal permission.

“It’s scary,” said Jo Malamute, acting city administrator in the Yukon River village of Koyukuk, some 350 miles northwest of Anchorage. Tribal members met last week and decided to stop passenger travel to and from the village by planes and snowmobiles, she said.

Malamute said the community was devastated by earlier epidemics that wiped out more than half of the village and is seeking to protect today’s elders. While the coronavirus has not been as deadly, many village leaders said elders who are most at risk must be protected.

While most Alaskans live in cities and suburbs a short drive from emergency rooms, smaller communities pepper the remainder of the state, flung across an area that is one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States and sometimes entirely unreachable due to weather.

In the vast interior region of the state, at least eight communities sent letters to local air carrier Wright Air Service in recent days announcing the restrictions, said Wright Air employee Brett Carlson. For example, Venetie, Arctic Village, Chalkyitsik and Nulato suspended passenger flights except in the case of medical emergencies.

The villages of Fort Yukon and Huslia sought to forbid non-resident travel to their communities, Carlson said.

Most Alaska villages have local health clinics, but any serious illness or emergency requires the patient to be flown to the nearest hub city for treatment. While residents are accustomed to intermittent delays in air service due to weather, the pandemic has further isolated communities that lack robust local health care facilities and where overcrowded housing is common. Some still lack indoor plumbing.

The travel and visitor bans go beyond travel restrictions imposed by the state of Alaska to further protect villages that are too small to have emergency rooms.

Not everyone is happy about the restrictions, said an official in Fort Yukon, 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks on the Yukon River, who asked for anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak to a reporter by the village council.

“Do you get criticized for it now, or criticized for it later when you are burying people?” the official asked.

Mail and cargo flights to the villages will continue. State officials on Friday said that when coronavirus cases are identified in isolated communities, the state plan is to fly the patient to a hub city for treatment, rather than sending medics and equipment to the village.

In closing their borders, villagers said they worry about the daily arrival of Cessna planes carrying returning schoolteachers and the river of visitors from neighboring communities who come on snowmobiles to see relatives. On the Kuskokwim River in Akiak, the village is forbidding visitors from outside the region except for those providing “essential emergency services.”

Households in rural Alaska living far from cities and highways are accustomed to feeding themselves. In Deering, near the Arctic Circle, the local tribe has offered to provide gasoline, oil and ammo to members and is seeking volunteers willing to hunt for food to feed their neighbors.

Wright Air said it was working with Tanana Chiefs Conference, the regional nonprofit service provider, to implement a screening program for all village passenger flights. Potential passengers are asked about their recent travel histories and flu-like systems.

“Our tribes are taking this very seriously, and they know that if they get one case in their community it could spread rapidly, and they are trying to limit that person to person,” said Tanana Chiefs Chairman Victor Joseph.

“We want to help our communities get through this and get to the other side,” he said.

The Tanana Chiefs serve some 37 village tribes and recently distributed $7,500 to each community to help pay for cleaning supplies and other necessities.

Katie Kangas, the first chief for the tribe in Ruby, said her community used the money to order a bulk food shipment of nonperishables such as pilot bread — the big round crackers that are a village staple — as well as powdered milk and cereal. Many tribal members in the hillside village of 149, which this month served as a Yukon River checkpoint for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, can’t afford to have food flown to the community, she said.

“Our traditional chief is elderly,” Kangas said by phone. “But he told us at the meeting to please make sure we are ordering for the children, he is concerned about them. I almost cried.”


A Congressman Skipped the Coronavirus Relief Vote. Instead, He Went Home to Tell Senior Citizens to Blame Mass Media.

19 Mar

by Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News

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This story was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House, Rep. Don Young, skipped a vote early Saturday on a federal coronavirus relief package. Turns out, he was in Alaska, where hours earlier he had told a gathering of senior citizens that dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic — the “beer virus,” he called it — have been overblown because of media-fueled hysteria.

Young isn’t the only politician to downplay the threat posed by the virus. Over the weekend, the governor of Oklahoma tweeted a photo of himself eating dinner with his children at a busy Oklahoma City restaurant. He deleted the tweet and subsequently has advised the state’s residents not to congregate in groups of 10 or more and to pick up food at restaurants instead of eating in.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Monday told residents, “For crying out loud, go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.” He subsequently decided to ban eating at restaurants.

And Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less.” He said he wants people to keep the virus in perspective.

Speaking on Friday at Mat-Su Senior Services, a nonprofit that provides housing and services for the elderly in the city of Palmer, Young urged calm and told the crowd that COVID-19 is not as deadly as some past viruses, according to a recording of the luncheon. The remarks by Young, a Republican, were first reported by the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

“They call it the coronavirus. I call it the beer virus. How do you like that?” Young, 86, said to laughter in a reference to the popular Corona beer. “It attacks us senior citizens. I’m one of you. I still say we have to as a nation and state go forth with everyday activities.”

That advice contradicts recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and information posted to Young’s own official campaign and congressional Facebook pages and his congressional website. The speech reflects how, as many elected officials work to calm their constituents, their messages sometimes lag behind or defy the advice of experts who are urging Americans, particularly older Americans who are most likely to die from the virus, to stay at home and avoid contact with others.

Of the roughly 80 people in the crowd for Young’s event on Friday, more than half were seniors enjoying a lunch of chicken cordon bleu and roast beef as part of the regular meal service at the nonprofit, said Ailis Vann, executive director of the Palmer Chamber of Commerce.

While Young downplayed the threat of the virus, his intention seemed to be to urge calm, she said.

The speech came a week after Young’s staff launched a “Coronavirus Resource Center” on the congressman’s webpage with links to CDC guidelines urging social distancing, two days after the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a global pandemic, one day after Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the first case in Alaska and two hours after Young’s own campaign urged Alaskans to “follow health protocols and best practices being suggested by our health care professionals.”

Young said he’d flown into Alaska the night before and began the far-ranging talk by quoting Franklin Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

That was a time of war, Young told the crowd (though Roosevelt actually said that in 1933, six years before the war began in Europe.) “Whether you realize it or not, we are at war now. But mostly because of the presentations by the mass media.”

On Saturday, Young attended an NRA fundraiser in the Mat-Su region of Alaska, according to posts on his campaign Facebook page. That was the same day the U.S. House voted on a federal coronavirus relief package.

Young criticized the relief package in his remarks.

“We have to be aware of that because even the president’s proposal sounds good, $50 billion, $50 billion we don’t have. We’re gonna borrow that money from the future generations,” he said.

Fielding questions from the crowd about international travel and testing, Young compared the illness to past epidemics: “Again, guys, this is blown out of proportion about how deadly this is. It’s deadly, but it’s not nearly as deadly as the other viruses we have.”

“I say the exciting part about if you just look even in China where this thing originated, it peaked and then it’s going down,” Young said. “It will happen here in the United States.”

When an Anchorage Daily News reporter called Young’s office in Washington for comment Wednesday, an employee said the congressman’s spokesman was working remotely. On Monday, Young’s official Facebook page announced that “out of an abundance of caution” he had directed his staff to begin working online from outside the office.

The spokesman, Zack Brown, did not respond to any questions about Young’s remarks, including whether the congressman’s views had changed in recent days as the number of Alaska coronavirus cases escalated and why Young’s suggestion that the seniors continue to “go forth” with everyday activities appeared to contradict statements made on his social media feeds and website.

Brown emailed a statement saying: “Congressman Young continues to be concerned for populations particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including seniors. Congressman Young has been in communication with House Leadership to ensure that proper resources are available to turn the tide in the fight against COVID-19.”

Young’s reelection campaign manager, Truman Reed, wrote: “It was my understanding that the Congressman was trying to urge calm, stressing his confidence that we will weather this storm.”

“This pandemic’s impact is very real, growing and causing all of us — our governments, businesses, health care professionals and as individuals — to have evolving views and protocols to face its challenges,” Reed wrote in an email. He said Young’s campaign has canceled events and postponed all face-to-face campaign activities.

On Tuesday, the senior center that hosted Young’s luncheon days earlier announced it would be canceling all subsequent activities for two weeks.

Kyle Hopkins is an investigative reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. Email him at khopkins@adn.com and follow him on Twitter at @kylehopkinsAK.