The first 150 or so tests came back negative.
Last spring, health care workers in Kodiak had swabbed somewhere around 150 noses, looking for a mysterious new virus called COVID-19, before they found any.
Testing efforts started in March of this year as Kodiak and the rest of the world began to grasp the magnitude of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. But it wasn’t until April 15 that anyone tested positive for the virus here, officially marking its arrival in Kodiak. That day, health officials said 153 tests had been performed so far.
Eight months, 905 cases, five deaths, thousands of tests and countless closures, cancellations and Zoom meetings later, COVID-19 is still deeply affecting Kodiak. There was no bigger story in 2020. It touched everything, and even though vaccines are slowly rolling out across the country, the virus will likely dominate headlines for months to come.
Kodiak felt the ripples of the growing international pandemic far before it reached the Emerald Isle. Schools started making preparations in early February.
“We’re trying to put a complete framework in place,” Superintendent Larry LeDoux said during a Board of Education meeting on Feb. 3.
“We haven’t pushed the panic button, we just wanted to let you know that we’re looking at a pandemic in the worst-case scenario.”
Cost Savers ran out of rice within two hours of getting a new shipment on March 5, store manager Holly Lonhiem said. Hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper and Clorox products were all in short supply too.
Alaska saw its first case on March 12, a foreign national who started experiencing symptoms after flying into Anchorage.
“I believe that Alaska is equipped. We’re geared up to deal with the situation,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said during a news conference.
“This is not the end of the world. This is a virus.”
It was hard to know what to think for many in Kodiak as the virus grew and grew everywhere else, but the borough remained free of it.
“I’m not sure how to react to it just because I see everybody online kind of making jokes and other people are taking it seriously. I’m kind of confused, but I’m buying food,” Sophia Sannito, a college student, said on March 17.
On March 18, the Kodiak Emergency Services Council, a collection of local leaders who oversee the local pandemic response, declared a public health emergency.
Businesses started to feel the strain of reduced patronage, wondering when or if customers would come back like they did in “normal” times.
“The longer it goes, eventually I’ll get to a point of no return,” John “Rusty” Fletcher, the owner of Orpheum Theatre, said on March 22
“And I think there’s going to be a lot of small businesses in the country that you’re going to see disappear.”
Businesses that rely on the flow of tourists to Kodiak were hit especially hard.
“This entire spring season will be a loss for me,” bear guide Sam Rohrer said, lamenting that out-of-state hunters would not be able to make it to Kodiak.
“Between the travel restrictions, quarantine restrictions and social distancing, functionally there’s no way to operate guide business and take hunters out.”
Cruise ship season petered out into nothing. All 19 of the ships that planned on coming to Kodiak canceled those plans throughout the spring.
On March 23, Kodiak officials issued a “hunker down” order. On March 24, the first Alaskan died of COVID-19. It was better to be safe, the thinking went.
“We’re waiting until the situation changes in Kodiak. We don’t have a case yet. I don’t know if waiting until we have cases is the logical choice, but we’re waiting on some triggers that will be evaluated day-to-day,” Kodiak Emergency Operations Director Mike Tvenge said about the order.
“We still want to maintain a certain state of normalcy.”
The pandemic was already taking a toll on people in Kodiak.
“I went into a state of grief, of shock,” local resident Zoya Herrnsteen said, referring to the moment she heard about the first COVID-19 case in Alaska.
She said she was worried about what would happen to Kodiak’s “limited capacities” if the virus reached the island. Anxiety kept her from sleeping or eating well for 10 days, but she started sewing masks, and that helped pull her out of the slump.
“After I started making the masks, it felt good to put that grief into something productive to help mobilise myself into creating and working with fabrics and help me move through that initial shock phase with a healthy outlet,” Herrnsteen said.
Former Kodiak basketball player Adriane Horn got stuck in Peru after the virus shuffled and canceled flights around the world. Fishing vessels flew yellow and black quarantine flags in the harbor.
Kodiak school’s spring break was extended until March 30, and then Dunleavy ordered schools to close until May 1. They would remain online for the rest of the school year.
Kodiak built up capacity for COVID testing, getting two testing machines from health care equipment manufacturer Abbot. Providers teamed up to set up a drive-through testing site at East Elementary.
Then, finally, there was a positive test: a GCI employee who only experienced mild symptoms. And for the longest time, there was only that one.
Later in April, businesses started to tentatively reopen after state and local health mandates relaxed somewhat.
“There’s no way to recuperate losses,” Raymond LeGrue, the owner of Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant, said about the month when the restaurant was closed for several days. Following the brief closure, the restaurant began taking orders online for pickup and delivery.
“We are running at about 20% of our normal volume, and that’s food and because the bar is closed and pull tabs are closed,” he said even with the reponing of dine-in service.
Aid began to flow from the federal government, some of it filtered through the state. Some businesses got loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, and the state doled out money to local municipalities from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
The City of Kodiak got $11.9 million in CARES money, while the Kodiak Island Borough got $5.8 million. Larsen Bay got $140,436, Old Harbor $170,947, Ouzinkie $130,329, Port Lions $121,362 and Akhiok $101,446.
Figuring out how to spend the money responsibly would be an ongoing topic for local leaders all year.
Kodiak saw its second positive case in early June, an asymptomatic nonresident who had traveled from the East Coast of the Lower 48 to take a job on the island as a fisherman. It was almost two months after the first case.
By July, there were 10 total positives.
Throughout the summer, about 100 school district employees and community members met and planned how to go back to school in the fall.
“We want to be a rock of stability in the community for kids. And that means we have to have school if we can do it,” LeDoux said.
And throughout the spring and summer, the district used federal funds to deliver food to kids all over Kodiak. Leon Wallace, the district’s food service coordinator, was featured on a special segment on the TV channel CMT about the “heroes” of the pandemic.
“The school district wanted to do this because lots of people were out of jobs — a lot of things were shutting down,” Wallace said.
“Hero, I don’t know. We are just helping out the community.”
The district eventually decided to open schools in early September to in-person teaching, with masks required and hundreds of thousands of dollars in building retrofits. There would also be an online-only option for students.
Homeschooling students spiked from 105 in 2019 to 247 in 2020 as parents expressed wariness about the potential interruptions in regular school.
“It’s been an interesting summer. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about homeschooling quite this much before,” Jennifer Hagen, who has homeschooled her daughter for four years, said about all the other parents asking her advice.
St. Mary’s Catholic School couldn’t make it work, and suspended its fall school year.
On the local entertainment calendar, Warm August Nights got axed. Crabfest was postponed from late May to late August, and even then many of the activities were online.
Kodiak saw its first major outbreak in early August when 37 employees at OBI Seafoods’ remote Alitak processing plant tested positive for the virus. They were all flown to Anchorage to quarantine.
After that, cases dipped down into the single digits for weeks. Schools opened on Sept. 8.
“We’re really ready. Of the teachers I’ve spoken to, they’re excited. The parents that have been coming in have had positive comments,” Kodiak High School Principal Neil Hecht said a few days before.
“I can’t wait to see those wide eyes of our freshman class when they come in for the first time.”
Case counts in Kodiak stayed relatively low throughout September. The ComFish trade show, which had been postponed from March, was held virtually, with speakers Zooming in from around the country.
In late September, an outbreak linked to Coast Guard Base Kodiak closed down Peterson Elementary for a day, the first school to temporarily close because of a positive test in the building.
Cases started to rise across the state in October, as Alaska began reporting triple-digit case counts every day.
Schools made it through a month of in-person education by October, but it wasn’t to last. By the end of the month, schools moved online for two weeks, hoping for a reset after a flurry of positive cases in several schools.
By mid-November, with case counts still spiking across the state, Dunleavy issued a warning sent to Alaskans’ phones, pleading with everyone to follow public health guidelines.
“If we are going to keep our hospitals running and businesses open, all Alaskans must return to the same mindset that worked so well this past spring,” Dunleavy said.
“My job as governor of Alaska is not to tell you how to live your life. My job is to secure the safety and security of Alaska.”
The governor did not, however, announce any new rules or mandates, preferring to leave that up to local governments. On Nov. 19, Kodiak did just that. With 51 active cases in the borough, Tvenge announced a mandate requiring anyone inside a public space to wear a mask.
“I asked you last Thursday to do your best as a community to slow this down. But it wasn’t enough, and we are now seeing the unfortunate results of what non-mask wearing, disregard for social distancing and lack of quarantine has caused,” Tvenge said.
“I just cannot stand back and ignore what could seriously cripple our community.”
At the same time, schools moved online until Jan. 11, following more positive cases in buildings across the community.
“We know that remote learning is not the preferred choice of delivery,” LeDoux said. “We hope that with swift action we can help to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Kodiak while continuing to provide a high-quality education to our students.”
But cases kept rising. By the end of the month, there were more than 100 active cases and three people in the hospital.
Then, on Dec. 2, an eldery woman died, with COVID-19 as an associated cause. More deaths would follow.
The first week of December saw 134 new cases in Kodiak. In response, the EOC decided to move the community into “red” status, which limited all businesses to 25% capacity.
On Dec. 9, The New York Times listed the Kodiak Island Borough as the area with the 15th fastest growing COVID-19 outbreak in the country, as measured by cases per 100,000 people over the previous week.
Two days later, Kodiak reached 311 active cases, so far the high-water mark for Kodiak during the pandemic.
Four more people died of COVID-19 in December. One was Brian Gregory, who graduated from Kodiak High School and coached youth sports in Kodiak for most of his life. Another was Benny Daquilenea, a long-time supervisor at Alaska Pacific Seafoods.
But amid the grimness, there has been some hope recently. Vaccines arrived in Kodiak in mid-December. Dr. Dana Kerr, an emergency room physician at Providence Island Medical Center, got the first shot in Kodiak, a jab of the Pfizer vaccine.
“They asked who would be willing to take it first, and I had volunteered,” Kerr said.
“With the numbers going up in Kodiak, specifically in the last few weeks, it was really nice to get this on-island and give some of us some protection.”
And, after rising for weeks and weeks, cases started going down. On Dec. 30, there were 81 active cases and two people in the hospital. Over 100 people in Kodiak have gotten vaccinated.
It’s likely that 2021 will contain more news about COVID-19 as it continues to alter life in Kodiak and elsewhere.
But with any luck, it won’t be anything like 2020.