Amid COVID-19 outbreak, health officials ask Y-K villages to trade privacy for safety

Kongiganak, Alaska in 2004 (Department of Commerce Community Photo Database)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation says it will begin announcing which villages have COVID-19 cases and community spread of the virus — but only with permission from those communities.

The state of Alaska generally withholds the names of villages where there are COVID-19 cases if their populations are smaller than 1,000. But with recent high case numbers, regional health officials say naming the villages would encourage people to take more precautions.

As of Oct. 28, YKHC said almost two-thirds of the villages it serves have not given consent. If an individual in one of those communities tests positive or community spread occurs there, YKHC would not even be able to inform the residents living in that community. That’s concerning for YKHC CEO and President Dan Winkelman.

“When there’s a positive case, we want the community to know so they can not just take precautions, but also be vigilant about it at all times,” Winkelman said. “And certainly villages around that village, they would also want to know about it too.”

Some communities say they intend to submit their consent forms to YKHC but have been too occupied by other aspects of the coronavirus pandemic to get around to it. Pilot Station Tribal Administrator Martin Kelly said his village has been in lockdown for the past two weeks, which has prevented him from sending in the necessary form.

Akiak is another village that has not submitted its consent form. It’s also one of 19 villages that YKHC recommended to lock down on Oct. 26. Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community, said the tribe decided against YKHC’s recommendation for a lockdown.

“We haven’t had any known cases up here yet. And we are aware of the increase of COVID-19 in the region,” Williams Sr. said. “We’re trying to keep our lives as normal as possible.”

Williams Sr. said if an individual in Akiak tests positive for the coronavirus, the village would lock down then. He added that the tribal council would likely wait until the village’s first positive case to decide if they would make that information public to other villages.

“If we decide to go public, then we will,” Williams Sr. said. “As of now, we want to keep it private.”

Asked why, Williams Sr. said the tribal council had not discussed the issue.

Kongiganak has also not given YKHC permission to publicly announce if COVID-19 cases arise there. Tribal Council President Joseph Joseph said the council members discussed the issue, but did not come to a conclusion.

“You know, there’s always opposition,” Joseph said.

He said some council members were concerned about the privacy of an individual who tests positive. Although YKHC would not name the person — only the community where they live — Joseph said many people would likely find out who it was.

“Your cousin from the next village is gonna call, ‘Who’s got COVID? You know who’s got COVID?’” Joseph said.

Despite that concern, Joseph said he is personally in favor of signing the consent form.

“You know why I’d be happy to sign that consent form? It’ll keep everybody else away,” Joseph said.

Joseph said he believes publicly announcing when a village has a COVID-19 case would help protect people in neighboring communities, but he said he could not make that decision on his own. He said Kongiganak’s tribal council will meet with board members of other village organizations to try to come to a consensus.