COVID-19 first arrived on Kodiak in April, followed by a trickle of cases in June. The slow burn gradually intensified, until a deluge of new cases following the Thanksgiving holiday brought active cases into the hundreds. Total cases since the start of the pandemic passed the 1000 case milestone last week.
While the pandemic hit those who contracted the virus the hardest, everyone felt its impacts; record-shattering unemployment, drastic technological changes in the workplace, school closures, and high rates of psychological distress, to name a few.
The world is forever changed by this moment in history, and so is Kodiak Island. Local leaders like Sarah Philips of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce saw the struggles firsthand.
“We’ve seen the community come together to support our business community. But of course moving forward, we’re not out of the woods yet. We have federal aid funding on the way our second round… a year ago, I could have never believed we were going to have any financial funding available through the government,” Philips said. “And here we are hitting our second round and potentially even a third on the way with the Biden administration. So of course, the impact is throughout the US- it’s obviously throughout our community, no one has been untouched by this.”
Philips can’t remember a time that has so challenged business. She says perhaps no one can.
“I don’t know that there’s another single event that so dramatically in world history has impacted all businesses across the country before,” Philips said.
She also says that the pandemic has affirmed her belief in the lengths that Kodiak will go to in order to help its own.
“You know, one of the memories that I have in particular… has actually been on Friends of Kodiak; when all of our businesses knew they were going to be forced to close, all of our non-essential businesses- the community came together in such a resounding way to purchase gift certificates to make purchases from those businesses who knew their doors were going to be shut,” Philips said. “The community and Kodiak… I have always said it, it’s amazing how we can come together when someone is hurting. The community really goes above and beyond.”
Schools are at the heart of the community. And although the Kodiak Island Borough School District has been fortunate compared to the rest of the country, with fewer closures, students still had to adapt to a lot of changes.
Larry LeDoux, the school superintendent, says that he is impressed by how both students and staff have weathered the storm.
“Our schools are changed in many ways. Our staff is very professional, and you can see that professionalism tested when a crisis comes up. I believe our teachers, our custodians, our maintenance, our food service, our secretaries- they’ve stood the test. They’re here. They’re in harm’s way, and they’re taking care of kids. And I think that’s phenomenal,” LeDoux said. “I think we have an incredibly professional workforce in our education in Kodiak. I’m proud of them.”
For LeDoux, one memory in particular stands out.
“Watching the kids come into school… how happy they were, and watching teachers with literally tears in their eyes when they got to see their kids for the first time this year.”
Some have had to step up to the challenge on the behalf of the whole community. As Kodiak’s City Manager and head of the region’s Emergency Operations Center, Mike Tvenge has been the public face for the Island’s COVID-19 response.
Some of the steps the city took early on to defend itself from the pandemic were unpopular. And while they didn’t completely seal the island off from the virus, Tvenge believes they helped to slow it down.
“We were very concerned at the beginning of the pandemic on how it would affect Kodiak. And, you know, I was naive to think that living on an island would protect us. But with the travel that we have here in Kodiak, that turned out to be not true,” Tvenge said. “So we’re doing all the mitigation measures we could come up with and following other guidance from CDC and other agencies that have been working on mitigation of the virus, and that we did a pretty good job in our community, and people are really taking it seriously.”
But despite the hard work, Tvenge said the virus still claimed five lives in Kodiak.
“When we were below 1000, I was hoping we would never reach 1000 cases. But again, that was probably naive to think that way, because of what the rest of the United States and the world has been going through for months and months and the death rate, I mean, there’s 1000s of deaths a day at one point, so we’re fortunate to keep our local death rate down,” Tvenge said. I mean, I’m sorry to even say that, but no death is, you know… We wanted to avoid deaths for sure. And unfortunately, that’s not realistic either.”
And that’s always been the problem for those on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic – to anticipate what is realistic to expect. Kodiak’s COVID journey has been full of unknowns. And as the second round of vaccinations begins, there are still no certainties, only hope that the community has reached a turning point.