What Was It Like Four Years Ago – As Covid Swept Toward The Copper Valley?

COPPER RIVER COUNTRY JOURNAL COMMENTARY  Four Years Ago, In March 2020, The Copper Valley Braced For Something Nobody Had Seen In The Last H...


Four Years Ago, In March 2020, The Copper Valley Braced For Something Nobody Had Seen In The Last Hundred Years 

...A Major Pandemic That Killed Off Elders  

In March, 2020, the Covid pandemic was making its way across the world. People were sick. Many were dying. And it was obvious it was going to get worse – and there would be major consequences. Perhaps nobody would have jobs any more. Perhaps there would be no food available at the stores. Perhaps money wouldn't be available. Perhaps you wouldn't be able to keep the house warm. Perhaps you'd never see another roll of toilet paper in your lifetime. Perhaps you wouldn't survive. These were real and very legitimate fears. 

The rapid onset of Covid, making its way across the world, brought back frightening memories of a century before during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. That pandemic had affected people everywhere. It had also killed many people in the Copper Valley.

These included the great Doc Billum:

SEE DOC BILLUM'S STORY HERE IN THE JOURNAL: https://www.countryjournal2020.com/2021/11/doc-billum-died-of-flu-in-wilds-of.html

It killed Walter Charley's family, too:

SEE WALTER CHARLEY'S STORY HERE IN THE JOURNAL: https://www.countryjournal2020.com/2020/04/walter-charley-was-one-of-copper-river.html

That's because, despite our isolation, the Copper Valley has never been safe from epidemics: 

SEE STORY OF ALASKA'S BRUSH WITH INBOUND DISEASES AFTER "FIRST CONTACT": https://www.countryjournal2020.com/2020/07/essay-alaska-isnt-safe-from-disease-due.html

For Ahtna people living in the region, the stories they knew so well, from now-gone elders who had experienced the horrors of the 1918 flu pandemic, still lived on. As they were meant to. This was the very danger that local Native elders had anticipated, and the cautionary tale they wanted to impart when they spoke to their children and grandchildren. 

On March 3rd, the first 60 cases of Covid were reported in America. Covid was now in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the CDC. 

This was bad news. Covid showed it could zip quickly across the entire span of a huge country. 

Alaska was obviously going to be in harm's way. The epidemic and responses to it were spreading. On March 6th, the first cruise ship to have Covid, the Grand Princess, was quarantined at sea with an outbreak. Not good news. Cruise ships were a major component of the upcoming Alaska tourism season. 

And then, as early as March 12th, the first positive case of coronavirus was reported in the State of Alaska. 

Shutdowns began across the nation, with restaurants, bars and school systems closing. Shutdowns began in Alaska. 

That March of four years ago, there was no recourse. No vaccines were yet available. Nobody knew much about Covid. 

The virus was remarkably deadly in its earlier years.

On March 15th, the first nursing home resident died of Covid in Connecticut. 

All hell broke loose. Thousands of nursing home patients began to quickly die, one after another. On TV, dead elderly residents could be seen from afar, wheeled out of nursing homes toward city ambulances, sheets covering their faces as if they had been struck down by a mass car accident, or a bomb. 

Covid was hurtling forward and it seemed clear that older people were apparently most at risk.

The now-forgotten impact of those first days can still be seen on Google Image Search:

Up here in Alaska, 10 days after the first nursing home death, the small villages of the Copper Valley began to rush into action. 

They had to protect their elderly, as much as they could. But how? There were no vaccines. Masks were for home tasks. Most people only had masks in their workshops and used them for carpentry or putting in roofing insulation. 

Almost immediately, Ahtna villages decided to try to block the disease – by blocking traffic. (See story below)

Eventually, of course, Covid did arrive here, and it did spread across the Copper Valley. Many people got sick, and, eventually a still uncatalogued number of our friends and relatives  (elderly, and not so elderly) died. 


March, 2020 

1/4 Of Gulkana Village's Residents Are Elders – So Gulkana Blocked Outside Traffic To Protect Them 

Hearkening Back To 1918 Flu Pandemic, Gulkana Village Tries To Protect Its Older People From Death By Covid 

Twenty of Gulkana Village's 80 residents are elderly. 

That's one out of every four village residents.  Older people are the most endangered by the coronavirus. Older people are also the most revered in Native American culture. To protect their elders, Gulkana has asked non-residents not to enter the village. 

Sign at entrance to Gulkana Village on a sunny March day in 2020. (Journal archives) 

Gulkana Asks Non Residents To Not Enter Village 

Angela Vermillion at Gulkana Village told the Country Journal on March 25th that a sign saying "Residents only. No Outside Traffic Due To Covid-19" was erected on Tuesday, March 24th. 

There are some exceptions, she said. "We still need fuel and garbage services, and CRNA delivers elder lunches." 

Gulkana has around 80 residents, and there are over 20 elders, 1/4 of the total population. Not all elders receive CRNA lunches.

Like Mentasta Village, Gulkana had a village council meeting about putting up a sign. "We had a council meeting on Monday night and that's where we talked about it," said Angela. "Then we put the sign up." 

On Wednesday, March 25th, the village was working on a letter to deliver to residents about the virus and that they're asking for no more outside visitors. The letter, said Angela, will ask Gulkana people "to hunker down, and only one household member at a time if you need groceries or gas." 


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