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Pharmacists use planes, dogsleds and snowmobiles to deliver vaccines to Alaska's remote villages

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Posted at 1:55 PM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 16:17:44-05

FAIRBANKS, Ak. — To understand life in the farthest corners of America, you have to see it: the beauty of nature, the rugged, unforgiving cold, and the people of Alaska.

It’s the people across a state more than twice the size of Texas, with traditions as old as the mountains, who will show you what perseverance through a crisis really looks like.

We learned firsthand what it takes to protect these rural communities from COVID-19.

Our journey began thousands of miles away in Denver, Colorado. After two flights and a COVID-19 screening at the airport, we arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The next morning, we were up before the sun, which is an easy task when it rises at 9:30 a.m. We were about to embark on a trip that dedicated pharmacists make every day to drop off vaccines in Alaska’s remote villages.

Once we were cleared for travel, we headed to the pharmacy to meet Dan Nelson.

Every morning, he arrives at the pharmacy between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to pack up syringes, supplies and coolers of the vaccine.

“We transport some of it frozen and some of it thawed,” said Nelson, who has become an expert in caring for fragile medicine very quickly.

Every trip to each village is different. Nelson has to calculate how far and how long he’ll travel to make sure the vaccines don’t spoil.

“We only have so many hours of air or ground transport,” said Nelson.

The vaccines must stay just cold enough, but it’s a careful balance. Alaska’s subzero temperatures can make doses too cold and ruin them.

They must also be packed tightly.

“These are really sensitive to any sort of vibration or anything like that, so we have to put in all sorts of padding,” said Nelson of how he packs the vaccine.

With the supplies ready, it’s time to head to Tok, a village of fewer than 1,300 people more than 200 miles away from Fairbanks.

We headed to the Fairbanks airport and boarded a small commercial plane. What was once a bustling tourist and village to village transport service is now mostly dedicated to carrying vaccines.

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It’s a one-hour flight to Tok over snowy mountains, frozen rivers, and fields of barley.

We arrived at the clinic run by the Tanana Chiefs Conference with moments to spare before patients started checking in.

That’s when Nelson handed off the prized cargo to the team.

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It takes hours of work all to deliver just 100 doses, but it is work this pharmacist says is an honor to be a part of.

“That's something I think that we're really proud of. We’ll have given, I think, a little bit over 5,000, about 50,000 doses probably by the end of the day today, and we administered about half of those are out in our rural areas,” said Nelson. “We had a ski plane that was delivering, landing out on a frozen lake on the ice."

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The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a group representing dozens of tribes in Alaska’s interior, have even gone by snowmobile and dogsled to deliver vaccines.

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They're delivering to the entire area shaded in blue across the state.

Source: Tanana Chiefs Conference

It’s an effort that’s helping protect indigenous tribes who have been hit hard by this virus.

“The Alaska Native, American Indian populations have been disproportionately affected by COVID, and the problem is, when someone gets sick out here in the middle of nowhere, it's not like you just go down to the urgent care clinic or to the emergency room. It's a matter it's a $20,000 medivac to get out of there, and that's if you've got healthcare,” said Nelson.

For tribal leader Herbert Demit, he’s watched friends and family pass away without a chance to receive life-saving care.

“I've lost elders that I look up to, and it's like you lose so many different communities, and it affects us all,” said Demit.

For many Native Alaskan tribes, the virus has taken loved ones and tradition away all at once.

“We do have we deal with a death in a certain way and we, we're not able to work together and deal with it like we usually do,” said Demit.

Daisy Northway dealt with the loss of a child in the midst of the pandemic.

“I couldn't even see my son. He didn't even have COVID, but, you know, I couldn't go to the hospital. He was gone before I was able to say my last goodbyes,” said Northway.

When she wanted to lean on her tribal ways the most, she was deprived of her community.

“Our tradition has been handed down to us to carry on into the future,” said Northway. The practice that helps us to renew our spirits and to provide strength, we were no longer able to do that.”

That’s why these two and so many others rushed to this clinic to get their vaccine, some driving more than a hundred miles from surrounding villages.

“I do feel a sense of relief,” said Demit.

Alaska has vaccinated the highest percentage of its population of any state.

Nelson believes it’s partially due to the hard work his team has put in and partially due to the fact that Alaska is getting allocations of the vaccine specifically for the indigenous population from the Indian Health Service. He explained how that allocation works:

Our allocation comes from the state of Alaska, but we kind of got a bonus that we didn't really expect,” said Nelson of additional vaccines allocated to the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. “And so, we also got IHS allocation, and that's really been the difference. I think about a third of the overall allocation to the state of Alaska has been for the Indian Health Service, so we're getting the allocation that we would normally expect for the state to cover the residents, of course, the tribal people are Alaska residents, but we're also getting this kind of bonus of the Indian Health Service vaccines. The really great thing about that for us is it takes that it takes those strings off of it. So, right now, for the state of Alaska, they have tiers and criteria of who can be vaccinated and all this stuff. IHS, It's our prerogative. We can do as a tribal health organization as we see fit in vaccinating who we want first. So that's really I think the key is that we've been able to be a lot more flexible with the vaccine with that IHS allocation,” said Nelson.

Even with fewer people, the conditions to get those vaccines out haven’t made it easy.

“As a patient when you come in, you don't see the madness that comes with you know supplying this vaccine to the people,” said Demit.

It’s a welcome madness and a beacon of light for Northway.

“Having had the shot gives us, gives us hope that we don't have to go through the things that our parents did,” she said. Her family lived through the 1918 flu pandemic. She told us her siblings and grandparents had to be buried in a mass grave.

Another day with her family is a gift she will not waste. It is a gift Nelson said his team will do anything to give.

“We're, we're glad to be getting people healthy and getting on the other end of this pandemic that we've all been so looking forward to,” he said.

That feeling of happiness has now multiplied across communities in Alaska’s most remote areas.

“Here is an opportunity that was given to us to allow us life, to feel comfortable,” said Northway. “Who's to say we'll get it anyway but at least we have hope.”

A chance they never knew would come from a fragile bottle carried hundreds of miles to help them holding the strength to end this community’s deep sorrow.

Our week in Alaska came to a close with a profound appreciation for the Alaskan people, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the beauty this state holds. The negative temperatures and incredible resilience in the face of the virus and the cold were a reminder that this pandemic can be overcome with a collective effort, perseverance and innovation.