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NSHC Prepares Quarantine Units For Patients and Travelers Waylaid in Nome

Nome's Front Street on a wintry night

Most Bering Strait communities, including Nome, have passed self-quarantine requirements for anyone entering their villages. The measures are meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also adds complications for patients who still need to travel back and forth to Nome or Anchorage for medical care.

KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter reports that Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC) is setting up living units in Nome to help patients in need of a temporary place to quarantine.

Most villages have some type of wording in their local travel ordinances that allow for patients to leave and re-enter the community for medical assistance, providing that they undergo self-quarantine when they return home. But in Western Alaska, residents are also faced with overcrowded housing, reduced flight schedules to Bering Strait communities, and as always, the potential for weather delays. This means that during this pandemic, there are likely to be people stuck in Nome who need a place to serve their quarantine.

NSHC’s Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson says that Norton Sound is preparing temporary living units all throughout Nome to help medical travelers undergo that process safely.   

“These units are in a variety of locations. Some of them are very close to the hospital so we can access them very quickly and easily with staff. And some are located in other parts of the community, but they’ll all be very comfortable units that have a bedroom, bathroom and other amenities. We’re getting them all fitted up now.”

For the sake of privacy for potential patients, Peterson doesn’t want to share exactly where those units are. He did confirm that the old Nome Youth Facility could be an option. But vacant apartments and hotel rooms around Nome are also potential options where traveling patients could do their quarantine.

Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority did confirm that they have donated vacant spaces to be used for any purposes that NSHC deems necessary.  Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman recently shared with the Nome Common Council that the City could possibly turn hotels into potential quarantine spaces.

For now, Peterson says NSHC has 150 living units prepared for patients in Nome. However, those that are able to should fulfill their self-quarantine period in their homes or home communities.

Dr. Peterson also wants people to understand that there’s a difference between a quarantine and another process called isolation.

“If you came in (to the hospital) and you were ill, and you had a fever we would test you. Then we would put you in one of our isolation units. It takes about 4-5 days, maybe longer occasionally, for the test results to come back. Quarantine is for everyone else who may have been exposed but does not have symptoms, or for someone who has traveled to an area where there’s been community-wide spread but does not have symptoms.”

That would mean a quarantine unit where the individual could be kept separately from other people who are not displaying symptoms of illness. Peterson says if need be, and if there were an outbreak in the region, all of NSHC’s prepared quarantine units could be turned into isolation units for 150 individuals.

Right now, NSHC only has units available in Nome. Dr. Peterson explains that NSHC is also working with Kawerak to identify spaces in each of the Bering Strait communities that could be used as quarantine or isolation units locally. 

“We also know that we have the schools available should we need them. So just like in Nome we’re getting quarantine and isolation units all on a master plan, we’re doing the same with the villages as well. So as soon as they’re needed, we’ll know where patients can go if they can’t stay home.”

Peterson says patients shouldn’t be worried about getting a bill for using their quarantine units, that’s a cost incurred by NSHC. Meals, support, and nursing care needed for those patients would also be provided and paid for by NSHC and Public Health.

NSHC is also asking for community donations for household items like dishes, towels, microwaves, and coffeepots to make the quarantine units more comfortable for patients. After the pandemic, the items will be donated for local and regional needs.

Norton Sound has designated nurse Amy Hollis as the lead for its quarantine preparations. Anyone needing assistance with quarantining for medical travel can contact her at 907-434-0654. As of Friday, Hollis had already assisted five quarantine patients.

Image at top: Nome’s Front Street, a common thoroughfare for the city’s taxis and vehicles. Photo from David Dodman, KNOM file.