Health officials work to mitigate COVID-19 outbreak in Hooper Bay

A resident of Hooper Bay, Alaska, walks to the boardwalk in the village in this July 11, 2003,...
A resident of Hooper Bay, Alaska, walks to the boardwalk in the village in this July 11, 2003, file photo. (AP Photo/Al Grillo) (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 7:01 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The community of Hooper Bay in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, prompting increased response from area health care workers.

From June 1 through Wednesday, 80 new COVID-19 cases were identified in Hooper Bay. As of Wednesday, there were 49 active cases, according to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., a health care organization that serves 58 rural communities in the region.

The outbreak is the largest number of cases Hooper Bay has seen since the start of the pandemic. Over the winter, the small coastal community in the Kusilvak Census Area did a great job of protecting itself and its residents, said Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff at Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

The new cases were enough to help bump the YK-Delta up into the high alert level according to a model used by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to measure how widespread the virus is in a given region. It’s based on the average daily case rate over the last 14 days.

The YK-Delta has an average case rate of 16.2 per 100,000, and is the only region of the state currently in the high alert level.

The outbreak in Hooper Bay began in early June, Hodges said. That’s despite more than 52% of the population being fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Hodges said one factor contributing to the outbreak is that a significant portion of the YK-Delta population are children, and outside the age cutoff for vaccination.

“In the Delta, our average age is young,” she said.

In many of the villages, more than half the residents are under the age of 18, Hodges said.

“So many of these new cases are children who are ineligible for vaccination, so they’re under the age of 12,” she said.

Additionally, those aged 12-15 only became eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations recently, Hodges said, so that’s another contributing factor. Adults who are not yet vaccinated make up the difference of the new cases being seen.

Hodges said the outbreak was recognized as such when it moved beyond a limited number of households and began to spread in Hooper Bay more broadly. She said the threshold for something to be considered an outbreak can be quite subjective.

“But what we generally think of is if it’s beyond about three households,” she said.

That would indicate the virus had moved beyond the index case as well as some secondary or tertiary cases associated with the index case, Hodges said.

“So when we’ve hit kind of that fourth household, we start to worry,” she said.

The region also has seen two Alpha variants of the novel coronavirus, as well as one Delta variant. Hodges said health officials aren’t yet sure if those variants are contributing to the outbreak in Hooper Bay, but that they’re sending samples to the Alaska State Virology Laboratory to find out.

“So we should have a more definitive answer on that in the near future,” Hodges said.

The Alpha variant is the strain that’s been most circulating in Alaska and the Lower 48. Hodges said it’s likely the variant associated with this outbreak, but that they don’t know for sure.

A health care team has been sent to Hooper Bay to help stem community-based transmission of the virus. One mitigation measure is to encourage widespread community testing of symptomatic and unvaccinated residents, Hodges said.

Another part of the response is to continue to promote vaccination, especially for those youth age 12-17 who might not have gotten one yet. That goes along with the usual mitigation measures like encouraging mask wearing when indoors in crowded spaces, and social distancing.

“They didn’t really have an outbreak until now, because they did such excellent mitigation strategies,” Hodges said.

She added that no Hooper Bay residents have needed to be medevaced and in fact there have been no hospitalizations yet associated with the outbreak. Hodges said that’s a much different picture compared to previous community outbreaks in 2020, before the vaccine was widely available.

“I feel like the vaccinations are on our side in this case,” she said.

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