Alaska is massive and, depending on where you live, often covered in snow. This can make it difficult to travel. With COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out across the country, that means some people in Alaska, especially the elderly, may not be able to get to vaccine sites and receive their shot.
In order to reach the elderly or immobile population, Dr. Katrine Bengaard, pharmacist Heather Dean, nurse Heather Kenison, and nurse James Austin V are traveling by snowmobile to each village in order to administer vaccines. The team of four travels by plane, sled, and snowmobile to deliver the vaccine to people across rural northern Alaska.
“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,” one of the health care workers, Meredith Dean said on Good Morning America. “Time is of the utmost importance.”
These badass women are literally riding in a sled being dragged by a snowmobile and carrying lifesaving vaccines through the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. Kenison even had to wrap the vaccine in a protective package and keep it under her coat for the ride because the vaccine would freeze inside the needle in the outdoor Alaskan air.
“We did the best we could, we had to kind of come up with it in the moment,” Bengaard said.
“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,” said James Austin V. “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.”
“We made it work and we had a really good time together,” added Bengaard. “We were all willing to crawl around trying to get into this tiny little plane. We were all willing to do what we needed to do.
“It’s just such an incredible opportunity to work with them,” Dean said of her female colleagues. “It was definitely an impactful and powerful moment to realize that we’ve all braved quite a bit to get there and provide care.”
In one case, Bengaard and the team safely and successfully inoculated a 92-year-old elder, who told them about her parents’ experience during the 1918 Spanish flu that decimated native Alaskans.
“It was very important for her family that she be vaccinated so that she be given a better chance for this pandemic,” said Bengaard. “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.”
Getting medicine across Alaska has always been a challenge. In one of the most famous instances, in 1925 during the diptheria epidemic, 20 teams of sled dogs transported a life-saving anti-toxin over 674 miles in six days during horrendous weather. Sled dog Balto later became famous for his endurance and bravery, and many stories and movies were written about the heroics of those sled teams.