Though the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of most Americans, it is not the first time Alaska has faced this type of challenge. During the 1918-19 Spanish flu that ravaged some villages in The Bush and the 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome – in part commemorated by the annual Iditarod sled dog race – the people in the Alaskan Bush persevered.
Alaska, like many other states, issued a “stay at home” order. The intent is to limit the movement of individuals within Alaska in order to prevent, slow, and otherwise disrupt the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. As with most places in the lower 48, it is to isolate and wait for the virus to eventually pass.
With most airports, flight schedules have scaled back because of decrease demand, and so has the demand for security. “We schedule only four people at a time because of social spacing,” said Wrangell (southwest Alaska) Supervisory TSA Officer Michelle Thomassen. “We are thoroughly cleaning the checkpoint, twice a day.”
Supervisory TSA Officer Wayne Arrington from Nome is concerned about the safety of his team. In a recent shout-out, he praised his team members on how they, “seamlessly implemented and worked through changes in our operation while maintaining as much spacing between [each other] and the travelers.”
“We try to keep six-foot spacing between passengers but we have to pat down all alarms because we don’t have any Advanced Imaging Technology equipment.” Our management supports lenient scheduling and “taking care of each other is critical to us.”
Yet in the land of the midnight sun there is more to the story. Living where the average annual snowfall can exceed 74 inches and temperatures drop below minus 50 degrees, staying at home for extended periods of time is not unusual. In fact, it is a reality. “The city of Nome has restricted travel in and out to essential persons only,” said Arrington. “Some of the outlying villages have totally restricted travel into their village. No one in, and if you leave, you can’t come back.”
The isolation created by living in remote villages creates some special needs when it comes to health care. Coupled with some of the smaller Alaskan air carriers now asking for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the movement of people and resources has nearly halted. But Alaskans, ever the optimists, continue to use their MacGyver skills on a daily basis.
Looking after your neighbor and genuinely caring for each other is how the people who live in these picturesque places called the Last Frontier. “When we saw what was happening in China, we started stocking up and preparing,” said Thomassen. At the same time, stores started to offer special shopping hours for the elderly to help them avoid contact with other shoppers who may be carrying the virus. Even in a state that has about one person per square mile, Wrangell Airport built an outdoor drive-in theater to help people practice social distancing and still enjoy seeing a movie.
Thomassen clearly summarizes, “No matter where you live during this epidemic, you are not alone. We all have positives and negatives as we fight through this challenging time. The key point is to be safe and be there to help one another. Together we will stand!”