DILLINGHAM, Alaska – Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation (BBAHC) is opposing the opening of the 2020 commercial fishing season in order to protect the 28 villages it serves within the region. To date, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Bristol Bay, and BBAHC fears the arrival of several thousands of people from around the world will put its communities and resources at risk.
As a tribal health organization and a critical access hospital, BBAHC’s priority is its tribal members and year-round residents. However, as the sole provider of medical care in the region, BBAHC is ultimately responsible for taking care of any individual who is sick and requires professional medical attention, whether they are a resident or not. BBAHC has a surge plan in place for year-round residents, should the need arise, but it does not have the resources to plan for additional influx beyond that surge.
BBAHC has not received a commitment from the State of Alaska or the City of Dillingham regarding what additional resources would be provided in the case of an onset of COVID-19. Without a plan of action, BBAHC resources will most likely will be strained and overwhelmed.
“Historically, we’ve been able to accommodate and care for the influx of visitors and their related fractures and other injuries typical of the fishing season,” said BBAHC President and CEO Robert J. Clark. “However, if COVID-19 comes to our region, even the handling of our summer injuries may be next to impossible. We are genuinely concerned about our capabilities to absorb several hundred potential COVID-19 cases.”
Currently, there are no commercial flights available between Dillingham and the outside world. BBAHC must charter flights at a very high cost in order to service its population. The current Medivac contract has been suitable for past needs, however its availability amid a pandemic cannot be predicted.
“We are living in a rural area, supplies are dependent on availability and weather for shipments. Miscalculation of needed supplies may leave us several days without necessary protective equipment. We are working daily to keep supplies in stock for our current population and still have not maintained adequate numbers. Our ability to perform COVID-19 testing is limited. We are under-resourced and our own tribal members do not have easy access to testing,” said Clark. “Furthermore, if our providers get sick, who will care for our region?”
While BBAHC has historically supported the fishing industry and values its importance to the area, the organization is respectfully requesting this year’s fishing season remain closed to protect its ability to care for current residents.