Alaska’s North Slope grapples with soaring COVID-19 infection rate, low vaccinations

Utqiagvik, the city formally know as Barrow, in 2014. ( Creative Commons photo)
Utqiaġvik, Alaska (Creative Commons photo)

Alaska’s North Slope has seen the highest coronavirus infection rates of any region in the state recently.

And while the North Slope Borough’s rate of vaccination for COVID-19 is on par with Anchorage, it’s far behind that of other comparable, rural areas off the road system.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes recently wrote about COVID on the North Slope.

Hughes says some communities there have seen their first infections of the pandemic during the surge driven by the delta variant.

Read a transcript of the conversation with minor edits for clarity

Zachariah Hughes: This is a region that had gotten by relatively unscathed from previous waves of the pandemic. There were communities on the North Slope that saw no cases last summer or even last winter when the virus was surging in other parts of the state. And all of a sudden, you’re having dozens of people in communities of just a few hundred folks that are returning positive tests. So that’s where a lot of the alarm is, is there’s just so many positive tests coming back. And I think there’s some degree of uncertainty about whether or not another shoe would drop in that.

Casey Grove: Another thing that you got into with your story was the rate of vaccination in the North Slope Borough. What are they seeing with that?

Zachariah Hughes: Well, it’s a really low vaccination rate relative, not just to the state’s overall rate, but to most of the hub communities in rural Alaska. A lot of the Western Alaska regions have really high vaccination rates and they have had them since the vaccine first came out. A lot of the regional health corporations in the Bethel area, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Bering Strait region, were really aggressive and frankly, really capable about delivering vaccination to a lot of the residents in hubs and in the outlying smaller communities.

And that’s not the case in Utqiaġvik and for the North Slope. The North Slope actually has the second lowest vaccination rate in the entire states at about 41%. That’s 20, 30, 40 points lower than some of the comparable communities in Western and kind of Arctic Alaska.

Casey Grove: Did any of the folks that you talk to have ideas about why that’s the case?

Zachariah Hughes: One of the people I spoke with in the North Slope Borough’s health department said that this summer, the bureau sent out teams to basically canvass every single household in the communities on the North Slope to find out “OK, why aren’t people getting the vaccine?”

And what this fellow told me was that he’d knocked on about 200 doors in some of the outlying communities, and he heard a lot of misinformation. He heard a lot of people’s mistrust for the vaccine, they had some conspiratorial assumptions about the vaccine. And so for him, that was the biggest factor that they were running into.

I think it’s also important to point out that if you’re living in a place that has not had a single positive case, it can be hard to see the urgency and the imperative. An assembly member from the North Slope Borough who represents Point Lay and Atqasuk told me was “we had no cases in town until very recently and maybe we let our guard down because now it’s spreading out all over the place.”

Then just historically, the Arctic North Slope region has not always had a great relationship with federal agencies and federal initiatives that have come in, purportedly in the name of scientific progress and health.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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