Vacant Armories to House COVID-19 Patients in Four Western Alaska Communities

Through a temporary lease-agreement with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA), four Bering Strait communities can now use their local armories as isolation units for COVID-19 patients.

In the communities of Brevig Mission, Stebbins, Teller, and Unalakleet, residents who test positive for the virus can now quarantine or receive care at their local DMVA facility. Several entities came together to provide this option, including the head of the Alaska National Guard.

“Speaking with General Saxe [of the Alaska National Guard), all we had to do was let him know which communities needed the use of that facility in that community because no other alternate care sites were identified.”

– Charlene Saclamana with Kawerak

According to Saclamana, the Emergency Preparedness Specialist for Kawerak, Julie Kitka of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) was instrumental in connecting them to Adjutant General Torrence Saxe in order to lease out the four facilities.

Representative Neal Foster was involved in the process as well, saying in a press release “I was honored to work with Norton Sound Health Corporation, Kawerak, and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to successfully coordinate an agreement to use the armories…as temporary quarantine facilities when needed, due to COVID-19.”

Saclamana says the majority of the 20 Bering Strait Regional communities Kawerak serves have inadequate options for quarantining.

“Most of our communities have relied on utilizing the school as a sheltering location when we’ve had some of these severe fall sea storms. So we knew and we understood that the villages would find themselves, eventually, in a position where they would have to identify a location where they could care for patients that would allow for social distancing from the rest of the community.”

Kawerak told KNOM via email they would like to, “express gratitude to General Saxe for his quick response, and also to NSHC for being willing to assume the responsibility for the lease, and also to our village leadership for stepping up and taking all the actions they have been to prevent / respond to the pandemic.”

Adjutant General Torrence Saxe with potential recruits in Nome. Photo from U.S. Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead.

Although the four vacant buildings were just transferred on a temporary lease from the DMVA, this is not the first time the department has divested some of its armories in Western Alaska. Staff from the DMVA previously told KNOM about their intention to turn over roughly 35 of their vacant facilities in Western Alaska to local organizations within the next couple years.

Saclamana hopes that effort is successful, but it will still take time to complete.

“We do hope that these facilities will move towards being decommissioned for the villages. That whole process is complicated in and of itself.”

Regional communities will still rely on their local school buildings as emergency shelters and for evacuation purposes, as the fall storm season approaches in the Bering Strait Region.

And if Brevig Mission, Stebbins, Teller, and Unalakleet have any local cases of COVID-19, they can prevent further spread by using these DMVA facilities.

So far three out of four of those communities have confirmed patients with the virus since the pandemic hit Western Alaska.

Image at top: The Alaska Army National Guard armory in Stebbins (Photo: Gabe Colombo, KNOM)