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New Clinic in Tok Stays Busy Providing Covid Testing, Vaccinating and Other Health Needs

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Tanana Chiefs Conference
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The Upper Tanana Health Center in Tok has been busy ever since the $20 million facility opened in November. That was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so in addition to providing badly needed medical care, the health center’s staff also has had to provide covid testing, vaccinations and care for those infected with the virus.

When the Upper Tanana Health Center opened its doors last fall, the Tanana Chief Conference which funded the project hailed opening as the realization of a long-held dream.

“The Upper Tanana leadership – they envisioned this health center decades ago,” says P.J. Simon, the chief and chairman of Tanana Chiefs. “So it was something leadership from the Upper Tanana really pushed for, lobbied for. And they got their 16,000-square-foot health center.”

One of those leaders is Daisy Northway. She’s a regional member of the Tanana Chiefs who for decades has been trying to get the new facility built in Tok.

“The new clinic had been anticipated for so long and worked on by the delegation of the Upper Tanana villages, in hopes that we would get a better clinic, better services,” she said.

Simon says the health center does indeed offer better services in what he calls the new comprehensive-care clinic.

“It offers primary care, urgent care, behavioral health, lab, pharmacy, radiology, dental and medical service – all in one location,” he said in a recent interview

Northway says more serious surgeries still have to be done in Fairbanks or Anchorage. But she says she and other area residents don’t have to fly or drive now to either of those faraway cities to get help with more routine needs, like filling prescriptions.

“Not having to travel 200 miles or 300 miles, or call Fairbanks and wait for our medications to arrive,” she said in an interview Monday.

The new facility employs about 50 people, and sees an average of 120 Native and non-Native patients weekly from all over its sprawling service area around the eastern Interior. Simon says that includes “Dot Lake, Eagle, Healy Lake, Northway, Tanacross, Tetlin, Tok Native Association.”

He says the new clinic opened just in time to help Upper Tanana officials slow the transmission of the coronavirus in those communities.

“We opened our doors in the middle of a pandemic,” he said, “and we still kept our doors open to people that needed to be seen for various health reasons.”

The clinic helped coordinate Tanana Chiefs’ efforts to test and vaccinate as many people as possible, which helped bring down the rate of infection in the region. But the new delta variant of the virus has caused a recent spike in covid cases in Tok. The state Department of Health and Social Services says a total of five cases were reported Wednesday and Thursday of last week. And seven more were reported on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Both Northway and Upper Tanana Health Center Director Joni Young were among those who tested positive.

Northway said so far it seems like a mild case, adding “I have a low-grade fever and just a runny nose.”

Simon says despite the covid-case increase, he’s optimistic that continued emphasis on testing and vaccination will bring the region’s rate of infection back down. And he says once that happens, he and other Tanana Chiefs leaders may begin planning the grand opening ceremony they weren’t able to hold last fall – possibly on the new clinic’s first anniversary in November.