In this small Alaskan town, 5 COVID cases meant an immediate lockdown

"It's a pandemic. It's going to seep into every nook and cranny."

October 20, 2020, 8:03 PM

Editor's note: Since the original publication of this story, Skagway, Alaska, Esmeralda, Nevada, and Loving, Texas, have reported coronavirus infections. Kalawao County, Hawaii, remains COVID-free.

And then there were three.

Hours before an ABC News story about the last COVID-free counties in America published last week, one on the list, Skagway, a 1,000-person community nestled in the Alaskan panhandle, was diagnosing its first coronavirus case. Over the next three days, five people would test positive for COVID-19 in what Mayor Andrew Cremata referred to as "a community spread-type event."

"A lot of people are blaming the media, saying they jinxed us," Cremata said.

PHOTO: People walk down Main Street in Skagway, Alaska, June 22, 2009.
People walk down Main Street in Skagway, Alaska, June 22, 2009.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

While five cases might not sound concerning in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of infections that big cities like New York and Los Angeles have reported, Skagway's five infections prompted swift action: Local officials initiated widespread testing and a shelter-in-place directive for all residents.

"You can market yourself as the community that's COVID-free, but you also have to be realistic," Cremata said. "I'd rather be the community that deftly handled the outbreak when it arose."

Local officials, including the mayor, city manager, police and fire chiefs had an emergency plan in place for when the first case arrived, Cremata explained. The Skagway community also rose to the occasion, he added. One of the individuals who tested positive released their name publicly to speed up contact tracing. Clinic staff worked through the weekend to provide COVID testing and send the test kits on an airplane to Juneau to be analyzed. Residents lit candles in their windows for the health care workers helping around the clock to keep everyone safe.

PHOTO: People shop at the Skagway Bazaar in downtown Skagway, Alaska, June 22, 2009.
People shop at the Skagway Bazaar in downtown Skagway, Alaska, June 22, 2009.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

That community effort was necessitated in part by Skagway's remote location. The picturesque cruise ship destination, which was a major hub for tourists before the pandemic, isn't easy to drive to and the border between nearby Canada is closed because of the pandemic. Without summer tourism, the economy is at a standstill and the population has shrunk to offseason levels.

Skagway is also considered a "medically underserved area" by the Department of Health and Human Services, meaning there are too few primary care doctors for the population. There's no hospital. If someone has a serious medical emergency, like a heart attack, they're airlifted out by helicopter for treatment.

Covid Free County in America: Skagway Municipality, Alaska
Covid Free County in America: Skagway Municipality, Alaska
Health Resources & Services Administration, Charts/Tables/Analysis: Jorge A. Caballero of Coders Against COVID, Data: URISA’s GISCorps, Coders Against COVID, and Esri, 2020. COVID-19 Testing Locations in the United States. Spatial dataset.

Then there's the reality of small-town living, where everyone interacts with everyone. "Even under normal circumstances, if somebody gets a cold in town it spreads like wildfire," Cremata said. "With something as contagious as COVID, we had to have protocols that recognized our unique situation."

"It's a pandemic," he added. "It's going to seep into every nook and cranny."

As of Tuesday, the three remaining locations on ABC News' COVID-free counties list are Loving, Texas; Esmeralda County, Nevada; and Kalawao County, Hawaii.

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