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Wellness Center Work Ahead of Schedule, Coronavirus Could Delay Construction

As businesses and facilities across the City of Nome have closed their doors, construction on a new Norton Sound Health Corporation building moves forward.

KNOM’s Davis Hovey reports that crews are making progress on the regional Wellness Center, in spite of local and statewide restrictions regarding the coronavirus:

“We’re about 95% complete on the interior framing. We’ve got pretty much most of the second-floor windows installed.…It’s really going about as good as it can be.”

– Justin Wetzel

UIC Construction’s Justin Wetzel is the project manager for the Wellness Center in Nome. When he says things are going as well as they can be, he actually means the project team is two weeks ahead of schedule.
In order to get to this point, amidst the backdrop of a global coronavirus pandemic, Wetzel says some of his fellow UIC crewmen had to stay in town for five or six weeks straight.

“We would have already gone…some of these guys would have already been on their R&R (rest and relaxation) and they’ve chosen not to, just because of the difficulty returning (to Nome).”

Despite dealing with what Wetzel describes as a mentally taxing situation, he says he and his crew continue to maintain great attitudes while they work in Nome without much relief. The team of eight or more, would have been more than doubled if not for COVID-19 effects. According to Wetzel, he was slated to have 22 people on site at this point.

Justin Wetzel, the project manager for the Wellness Center site in Nome, stands in front of a set of double doors on the second floor of the facility. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

Wetzel says they were given permission to continue working on the Wellness Center by the City Manager, Glenn Steckman. Weeks ago, the City Manager instituted travel bans in Nome preventing travelers from flying in or out other than for emergency purposes or essential work. Even if someone is deemed an essential worker, there may be mandatory self-quarantine guidelines they have to follow within the state of Alaska.

With that in mind, Wetzel anticipates complications will arise at the Wellness Center site.

“There’s without a doubt going to be some delays from this pandemic. I don’t really know the balance of what that is. It could be shipping issues that are forthcoming from the barge companies or things like that. All these things I have in careful alignment and sequential order are going to be shifting around and trying to be kind of reactive…”

For now, though, the interior of the two-story facility is almost finished being framed, customized to accommodate dozens of offices that will have walls of glass windows, to let in more natural light.

As Wetzel rattles off details on the building’s paneled partitions, fire retardant materials, and several fans with 38 motors in them, he highlights how energy efficient this center will be.

“It gets a Vapro-shield skin around all these insulated metal panels. A lot of people call it ‘frog skin’, it’s like a nickname for it. Essentially, it’s like a Gore-Tex, it’s waterproof on the outside but it can allow vapor to be permitted to go through it. So, it works exactly like Gore-Tex for a building.”

The final decisions have not been made on all of the staff and departments that will be housed in the Wellness Center when it’s finished. But, Lance Johnson, the Director of Behavioral Health Services (BHS), has a good idea of who will be working there.

“The space in the Wellness Center (is) for Behavioral Health and Tribal Health, which I’m really pleased to say will be joining BHS in there. I think it’s a natural collaboration and it’s a great cultural link, that frankly we were missing when being able to refer to tribal healing, (because) they’re all the way in the hospital…To be working side by side is going to be incredible.”

Currently the design of the Wellness Center includes a craft room, group therapy rooms, mock exam rooms, outfitted training rooms with sound proofing, smart board walls, and of course a full-size kitchen. This facility is also expected to house some sort of sobering center for intoxicated individuals.

The tremendous amount of space is spread out between two floors and is setup to be extremely energy efficient in Nome’s Arctic conditions, as Wetzel emphasized.

Construction progresses on the Wellness Center, which is almost completely framed on the inside as of April 2020. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

Aside from what will be available inside the new Norton Sound Health Corporation center, Johnson is also excited for what BHS will be able to do outside the building.

“We are exploring at this time the possibility of residential treatment, true residential where we no longer have to send anybody out for residential, for those who have higher levels of care. It is very preliminary, we are exploring a couple different things. I would love for it to occur. If it doesn’t happen next year, or the year after, at some point this region will have residential care, I truly believe in that.”

The most recent development for Johnson and his staff was a furniture meeting to discuss what items would possibly decorate the interior of the Wellness Center.

An interior staircase within the Wellness Center. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

If construction continues to move forward as planned, the Wellness Center could be open a year from now in April of 2021. However, Wetzel says that he will have to send some of his crew home and stop work by the end of this month, if the current statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus continue.

Image at top: One UIC Construction crew member works on one of the many rooms in the Wellness Center. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

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