Additional clinical space in Fairbanks and improved village sanitation measures are two of the areas locally based Alaska Native nonprofit corporation Tanana Chiefs Conference plans to fund with a recent $4.5 million grant distributed through the federal Department of Health and Human Services. 

The organization provides health services to 24 Interior Alaska villages, many of which have been fortunate enough to remain untouched by the virus. About five of the villages have seen positive cases, according to Marilyn Andon, deputy director of health services for TCC.

Federal grants meant to assist rural communities and public health amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been distributed across the country and TCC had originally applied for a smaller grant. However, the group was later informed that due to the population density of their area of service, the nonprofit was eligible for additional funding. 

The money has not been incorporated into the organization’s budget yet but members of leadership have begun brainstorming and compiling ways to assist rural villages and local members with the additional funding. 

Initially, a heavy focus was placed on keeping the virus out of villages entirely, Andon noted. But now with spikes spread across the state, new focus has been placed on helping villages avoid spread by improving sanitation and ventilation. 

Updated washing and drying machines will be retrofitted in some of the villages’ communal laundromats to meet improved COVID-19 cleanliness standards and new air filtration systems will be installed in a number of village health clinics. 

Here in Fairbanks, in an effort to keep patient populations as separate as possible, a number of medical services provided at Chief Andrew Isaac were moved to off-site clinical space to keep vulnerable patients away from COVID-19 testing and patients who had tested positive for the disease. 

These included the medical center’s pediatrics program as well as women’s health and obstetrics.

“Our patients would have had a lot of close contact with other people if they were coming in for regular appointments,” Andon said. “We moved some of our services out of that location to make sure we had appropriate measures in place for staff and employees; trying to reduce the number of people in the clinic at any one time.”

The services were moved to clinical space in the Al Ketzler Sr. building downtown that is typically used to train rural health aides. 

Eventually, TCC would like to set up office space that was recently purchased in the hope of expanding additional space for offsite medical care. 

Additional testing is also an area of focus and the funding will help support TCC’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing station. 

The station, located in the parking lot of TCC’s Chief Andrew Isaac Medical Center, was first launched when the pandemic hit Alaska in mid-March but was taken down in May when statewide numbers were low. 

As spikes in cases and community spread were reported in July, the station was reassembled. Andon noted the plan is to keep the station running “throughout the pandemic,” whenever that is, and this funding will help keep that going.  

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.