Kodiak strong: Community solidarity keeps COVID-19 at bay

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a new case of COVID-19 reported on Monday, Oct. 26.

Kodiak’s COVID-19 count blew past the 100-case milestone on Friday. Even so, compared to the rest of the state, the number of positive tests for the virus remains relatively low in the Kodiak region.

The Kodiak Strong movement, with its homemade hearts, has been a steady reminder to take precautions against COVID-19.

The total number of cases borough-wide, since the first outbreak of the virus in April, is now at 103.

Anchorage saw almost twice as many cases in one single day. On Sunday, 192 cases were reported. Statewide, that number shot up to 526.

Kodiak City manager Mike Tvenge says those latest numbers from the state health department should serve as a warning for Kodiak.

“That’s the most ever, since it started,” Tvenge said. “Don’t think this virus has gone away. Stay vigilant about this. It’s not over with.”

Bonnie Weed is the state public health nurse who tracks Kodiak cases. She hopes the low number of COVID-19 infections in the region won’t lull people into a false sense of security.

“We haven’t had a lot of cases going on in the community,” Weed said, “but we have consistently had one to three cases per week. That would seem to suggest transmission in the community.”

Homemade hearts and rainbows, seen throughout Kodiak.

Weed says Kodiak, as a community, has been very proactive. But contact tracing in some recent local cases shows that basic precautions aren’t being taken. And with the huge surge in cases statewide, Weed says it’s more important than ever that masks and social distancing become a way of life.

Even stores carried the Kodiak Strong message, though the early COVID-19 closures hit the economy hard.

She warns it could be some time before vaccines are available, especially in remote communities like Kodiak. Weed also worries that testing, depending on federal funding, may no longer be free in the near future.

She says access to testing has made a huge difference in keeping Kodiak’s infection rate low.

“I think Kodiak is probably one of the most tested places in the country. We’ve done close to 14,000 tests on this island. Amazingly, as compared to other parts of the world and the U.S., the testing has been free, which is pretty unheard of,” said Weed, who credits the Kodiak Area Native Association and other health organizations for making testing widely available.

Kodiak Airport COVID-19 testing site offered free testing for travelers arriving in Kodiak and heading to outlying communities.

She believes it’s helped to prevent the spread of the virus to the outlying villages on Kodiak Island, which to date, haven’t reported any positive tests. Also, no one has been hospitalized locally.

Weed also says another group has played a key role in keeping the region’s COVID count low, the Kodiak Emergency Operations Center, which has coordinated a region-wide response.

“That has been really impressive, and I think it’s really helped us so much with not having many cases,” Weed said. “I think Kodiak is really one of the best responses you could expect.”

Kodiak city manager Mike Tvenge, who is also director of the EOC, says both the borough and the city have assigned staffers to focus on COVID-19 prevention – and meetings continue on a weekly basis with the heads of various agencies and organizations, so they are ready to react to outbreaks like the recent one at the Kodiak Coast Guard base, which involved 14 cases that were kept from spreading beyond the base.

There were also dozens of infections reported this summer at the OBI Seafoods plant at Alitak, on the southern part of  Kodiak Island. But that wave of cases did not spread beyond the processing facility – and those who tested positive were sent to Anchorage on charter flights to quarantine and recover.

City Manager Mike Tvenge says the potential for COVID-19 to run rampant in Kodiak’s seafood industry has always been great — but for the most part, the industry has done a good job of policing itself.

“I can just give them praise, because they’ve taken on a strong mitigation plan. And we’ve got people living in bunk houses. We have people living in the community with other family members, so we’ve got a real chance for spread of the virus.”

The Kodiak Strong message of solidarity against COVID-19 can even be found on wooden pallets.

Even as Kodiak has passed the 100-case mark, it remains at the green, or low risk level. Schools, district-wide, are still being taught in-person. And all of this is still possible, Tvenge says, because the community has worked hard to stay a step ahead of the virus. But he warns this could easily change, as the state’s record surge in COVID cases increases the risk of the virus spreading to Kodiak.



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