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All-women team delivers COVID-19 vaccines by snowmobile to rural Alaska in subzero temperatures

The team of one pharmacist, one medical doctor, and two nurses traveled in one day by plane, sled, and snowmobile to get the vaccines to their destination.

All-women team delivers COVID-19 vaccines by snowmobile to rural Alaska in subzero temperatures
Cover Image Source: A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is displayed at UNLV on January 12, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

One of the biggest challenges drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech have faced in distributing the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine to all parts of the world is ensuring that it is kept cold at all times. However, for those in Alaska, the challenge isn't keeping it cold. It is getting the vaccine to the most remote areas of the Last Frontier and preventing it from freezing amid the harshest of conditions. Luckily, an all-women team of health care workers was more than up to the challenge as they braved subzero temperatures and travel difficulties to deliver the vaccine to people across rural northern Alaska.



According to Good Morning America, the team—comprising one pharmacist, one medical doctor, and two nurses—traveled in one day by plane, sled, and snowmobile to get the vaccines to their destination. At one point in the day, with only a few hours of daylight and bone-chilling temperatures, the team of women carried the vaccine off an Alaskan "bush plane" and onto a sled attached to a snowmobile. Upon arriving at their location by snowmobile, a local villager pulled them the rest of the way to their rural village where elders waited to be vaccinated.



"It was definitely an impactful and powerful moment to realize that we've all braved quite a bit to get there and provide care," 25-year-old Meredith Dean—a resident pharmacist who is originally from Tennessee —told the network. To reach elders who are totally immobile and require a home visit to receive their vaccinations, Dr. Katrine Bengaard, who is leading the COVID-19 vaccine distribution from Kotzebue (33 miles north of the Arctic Circle), and a nurse traveled by snowmobile from each village. The nurse carried the vaccines wrapped in a protective envelope inside her coat for the ride since the frigid outdoor air could cause the vaccine to freeze in the metal part of the needle.



"We did the best we could, we had to kind of come up with it in the moment," said Bengaard. Together, the four health care workers together traveled hundreds of miles, into multiple villages by plane, to safely and successfully deliver 65 vaccinations. "We made it work and we had a really good time together," said 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." While their accomplishments so far are nothing less than a heroic feat, the women plan to keep going out until everyone is vaccinated.



"It's just such an incredible opportunity to work with them," Dean said of her colleagues. "One thing that a lot of us feel when we live and work out here is that we're a little bit forgotten," Bengaard told NPR. "But with the way that this COVID vaccine has been distributed, we don't feel forgotten at all." Meanwhile, in Homer, Alaska, another group of nurses traveled by sea to distribute the vaccines after the winter weather made air travel impossible. Capt. Curt Jackson, who helped the nurses get to their destination, revealed that he initially did not realize he was transporting COVID-19 vaccines as he was charting his boat through what he described as a "bumpy ride."



"This woman kind of clutches this blue box a little bit more," he said of the moment he realized he was transporting the vaccine. "All of a sudden the boat starts to take this big 30-degree swing, I mean it's pounding through, so I tried to go as slow as possible." Speaking of the moment the boat landed safely in Seldovia, Alaska, he said: "I was definitely emotionally choked up feeling like this was a moment where we kind of were starting to do something positive here."



Thanks to the efforts of all those involved, Alaska now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country with rural and Indigenous residents getting access to shots at the same or much higher rate than those in Alaska's cities. Public health experts explained that this is appropriate given the Indigenous Nations' federally recognized sovereignty and because COVID-19 has hit rural areas and Alaska Native people especially hard.


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