The speed with which scientists were able to create several effective COVID-19 vaccines was impressive. Now comes the part about administering them to everyone who needs one. A group of women has been putting on their own impressive effort by getting the vaccine out to the most remote areas in Alaska.
Dr. Katrine Bengaard, nurses Heather Kenison and James Austin V, and resident pharmacist Meredith Dean have been braving wintry conditions via a slew of travel methods to ensure rural Alaskans are protected against the deadly virus.
Austin told Good Morning America, “We got to go from car to commercial airline, got picked up in a Sno-Go with a sled behind it, then we got on charter air, then we got picked up by a four-wheeler with a little trailer behind it, more Sno-Go, more sled. It’s actually more navigable out here in the winter than it is in the summer because you can travel on the tundra and all the water turns to navigable ice.”
Reaching remote areas in Alaska can be tricky, with no roads leading to them. For these medical purposes, there’s the added issue of no nearby hospitals and few ultra-cold freezers.
Dean says, “It’s challenging getting the vaccine up here to begin with and then getting it out to the villages brings on a whole new set of challenges and logistical issues. Time is of the utmost importance.”
Temperature is also of the utmost importance. The vaccine needs to be kept at a certain temperature, and the frigid outdoor air can freeze it. As a result, Kenison has had to use a protective envelope and hold it inside her coat to keep it safe on snow mobile rides.
Over hundreds of miles, they’ve managed to get the vaccine to more than 60 people, including a 92-year-old Native Alaskan elder whose parents had told her harrowing stories about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Bengaard said, “It was very important for her family that she be vaccinated so that she be given a better chance for this pandemic. The 1918 flu was really devastating to some of the communities up here and it was just wonderful to be able to offer that to her.”
The efforts of healthcare providers like these four women have helped Alaska attain one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. While there have been hiccups like those found in other states and limitations on appointments, rural residents and indigenous people have not been forgotten, with rates that match or exceed those of urban areas. This has been a boon to those communities because they’ve been hit especially hard. State data shows that nearly 40% of COVID deaths in the state were native Alaskan or American Indian.
The people who have played a role in moving the vaccine along are happy to have helped these healthcare workers turn the tide on this disease. Curt Jackson’s aluminum landing craft the Orca carried nurses and a load of vaccine to the village of Seldovia, despite rough seas and a heavy tide.
But we eventually got there. The mask doesn’t show it but there’s one helluva of a huge smile on my face getting to help out just a little bit for our rock star medical people. We will get through this together everyone. It’s been a long year this little victory was great. pic.twitter.com/atSd0Dzvku
— Captain of Winter Jackson (@captaincurtjack) December 17, 2020
He says, “It was definitely kind of creeping along on eggshells as we’re slamming through these waves, trying to be as careful as possible, knowing there’s this super special cargo on board. It’s been a rough year, like, I’m not going to lie — I got choked up realizing this was like this first little step towards victory.”
Healthcare workers have already done so much for the country throughout this pandemic. Adding “snow conquerors” onto their resume just makes them even bigger heroes. Thank you, ladies, for your effort!
To hear more from the team, check out the video below.