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Gambell Residents Endure “Hunker-Down”, Challenges Amidst Local COVID Outbreak

The local grocery store in Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2017).

Gambell is having the region’s largest outbreak of COVID-19. As of today, the community had 29 cases being reported. As KNOM reports, residents in Gambell are living in lockdown with limited resources.

Melanie Campbell is finishing up work for the day at the Gambell IRA office. It’s nearly 5pm and she hasn’t had a chance to call in her groceries to the Native store. “I kind of feel like it’s too late for me to make an order!she exclaimed with a laugh.

With 29 cases of the virus locally, and about half of the community tested, the local store is only taking phone orders. Residents are asked to form a line, while standing six feet apart, and wait for the store clerk to deliver their groceries. There’s one grocery store for the community of 700 people and the phone line is constantly busy.

The lockdown is exacerbating the already delicate grocery supply chain. “We haven’t had any eggs and fresh produce in quite a while,” said Gambell City Clerk Charlotte Apatiki. She notes that several times this season the cargo plane failed to land and unload groceries.

To help the situation, Apatiki says Norton Sound Health Corporation is assisting in delivering groceries to the families in isolation.

The Gambell school is closed and right now, the Bering Strait School District is not doing meal deliveries. Many children in the community normally eat both breakfast and lunch at school.

While eggs would be nice to have for baking projects to keep her children entertained, Apatiki doesn’t think her household of six will go hungry.

“Most of us, if we were lucky to have gas during the spring harvest, are living on Native foods and fish.”

The City Clerk in Gambell, Charlotte Apatiki. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

Earlier this year a broken fuel line caused Gambell to be on a fuel ration for most of the spring and summer subsistence season. That has since been repaired and Apatiki says local fuel prices have gone down from $12 to about $7.40. But she thinks the fuel ration impacted a lot of residents’ ability to harvest the food they now need to get them through lockdown.

Some assistance did come from the federal government. The Native Village of Gambell decided to give every member of the community $600, through their tribal CARES Act funding, to help ease the burden of those costs. According to grant administrator Melanie Campbell, she says that funding is for cleaning supplies, food, fuel or anything else a family would need.

The emotional costs are taking a toll as well. Gambell has three Village Police Officers going around the community to enforce lockdown. That’s hard for Apatiki’s kids who are used to roaming the tightly-knit village.

“My five-year-old really wants to go play with his cousins and everything. The weather hasn’t been cooperating at all. It’s raining and pretty windy out there.”

Aside from being cooped up inside, online schooling isn’t an option either and homework isn’t being sent out by the local school.

“Our [internet/mobile] data here is practically slow to nothing on some days. Nothing [schoolwork] is being done right now.”

– Charlotte Apatiki.

The local hospital considers the situation in Gambell to be an “outbreak”. Local residents told KNOM they worry that the virus is spreading more easily because of the number of people living in overcrowded homes with their extended family.

Norton Sound Health Corporation is reporting that at least one household of six individuals in Gambell all tested positive for COVID-19. Despite that, local Mayor Joel James feels prepared for the current “hunker-down” order.

“People that are in isolation have isolation housing and people that are in quarantine are in quarantine at home.”

For privacy reasons, he wouldn’t confirm where the isolation units are, but James says there are enough units available in Gambell if more people become sick. 

Local leaders like Mayor James stress the importance of following curfew and quarantine rules to slow down the community spread. The Mayor is trying to do his part too; KNOM barely manages to catch him on the phone between errands.

“I’m a very busy man. I was delivering toilet paper to people in isolation.”

– Mayor Joel James

Image at Top: The local grocery store in Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2017).

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