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‘We're being proactive’: St. Paul island has recorded just 2 coronavirus cases since the pandemic started

Hope McKenney
A city official says the island’s high vaccination rate and strict protocols, like mandatory testing, have kept the virus from spreading.

Ninety-one percent of eligible St. Paul residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to city officials.

That — along with strict protective measures — has helped keep the coronavirus largely out of the small Pribilof island community. St. Paul has recorded just two COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, said City Manager Phil Zavadil. The first was in April and the second in August.

“We know these protective measures work and our case numbers are a result of that,” he said.

Zavadil said St. Paul’s remoteness and limited health care options, plus hospitals reaching capacity in other parts of the state, have driven the island’s strict COVID-19 precautions. St. Paul has just one clinic with two mid-level providers and a health aide, but no doctor. It has a ventilator, but doesn’t have a health care employee trained to use it. And, it’s a thousand-mile medevac flight to Anchorage.

“I think a number of situations — forces outside of our control — kind of drive the decisions to keep our protective measures in place,” Zavadil said. “We're being proactive and not reactive to the situation.”

St. Paul’s vaccination rate is higher than many communities in Alaska. Statewide, just 58% of Alaskans age 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

Zavadil said the majority of the island’s 371 residents also support local measures. They include having to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before traveling to the small community, a mandatory quarantine upon arrival — even for vaccinated people — and required masking in indoor public spaces.

The last time the community relaxed those rules, a fully-vaccinated traveler tested positive. Zavadil said that person had 44 close contacts and the city subsequently passed a two-week “hunker down” order in August and delayed the start of the school year.

“We made it through without any additional cases,” he said. “I think we got lucky. It could have been worse.”

Zavadil said implementing such strict precautionary measures has taken a toll on city workers: It’s added an extra burden to have staff review travel forms and workforce protection orders. But, he said, it’s been worth it to protect the community.

It has also helped keep the island’s 50 students learning in-person, which is critical because the Internet is so slow. The school shut its doors last March with the onset of the pandemic, but students returned to their classrooms in the fall of 2020.

“The remote learning didn't work for us, just because our Internet service at home is poor, at best,” Zavadil said. “So [teachers] actually put together packets and hand delivered those to each household when there wasn’t in-person learning.”

His wish, he said, is that other communities would take the pandemic more seriously. He also called out Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to recognize that Anchorage is a state hub and that many people from communities like St. Paul depend on traveling there for medical reasons or to get goods and supplies.

“The assembly and the mayor need to take it more seriously and put protective measures in place because what they do affects us,” he said. “I think keeping our protective measures in place here is a result of the lack of mitigation and protective measures in the hub community like Anchorage.”

St. Paul’s current emergency ordinance, which includes the mask mandate and other precautions, is set to expire in a month.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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