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Guards work 24 hours a day to keep COVID out of some small Alaska Native villages

COVID checkpoint outside Mentasta Lake (07/13/20)
COVID checkpoint outside Mentasta Lake (07/13/20)(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 3:10 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A guard sits in his car just off the Tok Cutoff, waiting to screen people trying to drive down to Mentasta Lake. The checkpoint has been operating 24 hours a day for months.

“Since we got the first few cases in Alaska,” said James Pitka. “It was when the snow was still here, it was just starting to melt.”

The checkpoint is used to protect the village that has a population of 112, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Essential visitors are allowed to come in to refill fuel, take out trash or drop off wood. Outsiders are otherwise barred from entering.

Villagers who leave to visit Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok or Glenallen are asked to quarantine when they return home.

Close to the Canadian border, the smaller village of Northway has installed a similar checkpoint, keeping track of who wants to come in. The goal behind the checkpoint is protecting vulnerable tribal members.

“We have 74 senior citizens and elders here with a lot of medical issues. And our children, we have so many children,” said Gerald Albert, the president of the Northway Village Council.

The village is accessed by a nine-mile road maintained by the state. Albert said the village council got permission from the Alaska Department of Transportation to install a checkpoint and track who comes and goes.

The biggest concern is the gas station that sits on the Alaska-Canada Highway. Visitors fill up their gas tanks and buy supplies at a small store staffed by villagers. “COVID has gotten close, it’s only 50 miles from us,” Albert said.

A COVID coordinator was hired by the Northway Village Council and community members are asked for their say when big decisions are made.

All nearby communities are enforcing similar quarantine measures.

On the banks of the Tanana River, Gerald Joe keeps watch over the road that leads down to Tetlin. “We didn’t have any visitors since this started, pretty much closed all the villages,” Joe said.

The checkpoint system is the same way some Alaska Native villages kept the Spanish Flu out at the turn of the 20th century. That pandemic devastated many Alaska Native communities.

“The people know that our ancestors, they survived in 1919, and now we’re going through it,” Albert said. “It’s new to us and we try to combine back then to now.”

Some elders spoke to Albert about the Spanish Flu when coronavirus hit. The fear of getting sick was a lived memory for their parents.

Villagers at Northway were said to be shook-up when COVID-19 hit Alaska but are said to be calmer now and going about their lives, mostly like normal.

There is no timeline at any of the villages when the checkpoints might come down. With a sigh, Albert expresses what it’s been like as these communities try to keep everyone safe: “It’s been a long, long two and half months for us.”

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