By KAYNA WHITWORTH, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Largely cut off from the rest of the world, people living in the most remote areas of the Last Frontier are getting the COVID-19 vaccine due to the ingenuity and dedication of an all-female team of health care workers.
The team of one pharmacist, one medical doctor and two nurses traveled in one day by plane, sled and snowmobile to deliver the vaccine to people across rural northern Alaska.
At one point in the day, with only a few hours of daylight and in subzero temperatures, the team of women carried the COVID-19 vaccine off an Alaskan “bush plane,” and onto a sled attached to a snowmobile.
After arriving by snowmobile at their location, 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,” one of the female health care workers, Meredith Dean, a 25-year-old resident pharmacist who is originally from Tennessee, told ABC News.
In order to reach elders who are totally immobile and require a home visit, 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 had to wrap the COVID-19 vaccine in a protective envelope and put it under her coat for the ride because the vaccine would freeze inside the needle in the frigid outdoor air.
“We did the best we could, we had to kind of come up with it in the moment,” Bengaard told ABC News.
Bengaard and her nurse safely and successfully inoculated a 92-year-old elder, who told them stories of her parents and the 1918 Spanish flu that decimated native Alaskans.
Together, the four health care workers together traveled hundreds of miles, flying into multiple villages by plane, to deliver 65 vaccinations, a heroic feat in the conditions they faced.
“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.”
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 female colleagues.
The massive effort to get the vaccinations to those who need them is asking a lot of health care professionals across the state.
Alaskan state Sen. Donny Olson was vaccinated near his home in rural Golovin and took to Facebook to thank health care workers for their efforts.
“No matter the circumstances, no matter the weather, they are going out there by snow machine, by sled, by boat, by plane, whatever it takes and for their efforts, I am so grateful!” he wrote.
In Homer, Alaska, another group of nurses traveled by sea to distribute the vaccines. While the health care workers often take planes to reach remote villages, the winter weather doesn’t always allow it.
Capt. Curt Jackson said he did not realize he was transporting COVID-19 vaccines as he was charting his boat through what he described as a “bumpy ride.”
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
“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.”
Jackson described his emotions once the boat landed safely in Seldovia, Alaska.
“I was definitely emotionally choked up feeling like this was a moment where we kind of were starting to do something positive here,” he said, adding that when he told the nurses they were his “heroes” and asked to take a photo with them, the nurses replied, “You’re our hero.”
Tune in to Good Morning America on Friday, Jan. 15, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., EST, to watch a live interview with the all-female team in Alaska.
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