It’s not easy to get the COVID-19 vaccine to the more remote parts of the world. In Alaska, where the vials are going out to rural areas on chartered planes and water taxis, a dedicated group of women ensured that those in the most isolated areas of northern Alaska are getting the shot.
The all-female team, consisting of pharmacist Meredith Dean, Dr. Katrine Bengaard and two nurses, Heather Kenison and James Austin V, are traveling by any necessary modes of transport — including plane, sled and snowmobile — to complete their mission.
Emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer of Alaska Dr. Anne Zink shared pictures of the vaccine distribution team on her Facebook page.
“Maniilaq has been sending out teams to our surrounding villages to vaccinate against COVID-19,” Zink wrote. “Dr. Bengaard and team went out to Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk offering the Pfizer vaccine to all essential workers and seniors 65 and older.”
“Recipients expressed how grateful they were that even though they are so remote, they are getting this vaccine. They are not forgotten,” she wrote.
“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,” 25-year-old Dean, who is originally from Tennessee, told “Good Morning America.” “Time is of the utmost importance.”
To ensure the vaccines survived the trip, Kenison had to wrap it in a protective envelope and put it under her coat for the ride — otherwise the vaccine would freeze inside the needle in the frigid air.
“We did the best we could, we had to kind of come up with it in the moment,” Bengaard told “GMA.”
One of the recipients of the shot was a 92-year-old elder, who told the team stories of the 1918 Spanish flu that decimated native Alaskan communities.
“It was very important for her family that she be vaccinated so that she be given a better chance for this pandemic,” Bengaard told “GMA.” “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.”
There’s a long and heroic tradition of Alaskans going above and beyond to get life-saving medicine out to rural communities in the harshest winter weather, dating back to the 1925 Serum Run in which the cure for a diphtheria outbreak in Nome was delivered by dogsled on the Iditarod Trail in -85F temperatures and gale-force winds.
Alaskans are using whatever travel methods are available now, too. In Homer, Alaska, another group of nurses traveled on Captain Curt Jackson’s boat to distribute COVID vaccines because the weather ruled out air travel. But Jackson didn’t even realize what he was transporting during what he called a “bumpy ride.”
“I got the honor of bringing our hard working medical staff and the precious blue box containing the best early Christmas present I could ask for…” he wrote on Twitter.
An Alaskan Vaccine Story Thread @annezinkmd This morning conditions on Kachemak Bay prevented planes from flying so I got the honor of bringing our hard working medical staff and the precious blue box containing the best early Christmas present I could ask for… pic.twitter.com/7w78tuVfke
— Captain of Winter Jackson (@captaincurtjack) December 17, 2020
The women said they will keep going out until everyone is vaccinated.
“It’s just such an incredible opportunity to work with them,” Dean said of her team members. “It was definitely an impactful and powerful moment to realize that we’ve all braved quite a bit to get there and provide care.”