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

Alaskan communities that are accessible only by plane or snowmobile are cutting off the outside world in response to COVID-19 rather than risk elders’ lives.

Nulato, a village in Alaska, suspended passenger flights except in the case of medical emergencies in the hopes of delaying the arrival of the coronavirus. (Bob Hallinen/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.”

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