All-female team delivers COVID-19 vaccines by snowmobile in harshest of conditions in rural Alaska

KAYNA WHITWORTH
·5 min read

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, in part, 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’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 female health care workers, Meredith Dean, a 25-year-old resident pharmacist who is originally from Tennessee, said Friday on "Good Morning America." "Time is of the utmost importance."

PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)
PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)

In order to reach elders who are totally immobile and require a home visit, Dr. Katrine Bengaard and a nurse, Heather Kenison, traveled by snowmobile from each village.

Kenison had to wrap the COVID-19 vaccine in a protective envelope and put it under her coat for the ride, carrying it like a baby, 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, part of the team managing the COVID-19 vaccine distribution from Kotzebue, 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, told "GMA."

VIDEO: Alaska health workers fight elements to deliver COVID-19 vaccine (ABCNews.com)
VIDEO: Alaska health workers fight elements to deliver COVID-19 vaccine (ABCNews.com)

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.

"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."

Together, the four health care workers together traveled hundreds of miles to multiple villages to deliver 65 vaccinations, a heroic feat in the conditions they faced.

VIDEO: Alaska health workers fight elements to deliver COVID-19 vaccine (ABCNews.com)
VIDEO: Alaska health workers fight elements to deliver COVID-19 vaccine (ABCNews.com)

"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, a registered nurse. "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."

MORE: Speeding up COVID-19 vaccinations is a race against time: OPINION

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. "It was definitely an impactful and powerful moment to realize that we've all braved quite a bit to get there and provide care."

PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)
PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)

The massive effort to get the vaccinations to those who need them is asking a lot of health care professionals across the state.

MORE: Barbershops in Black communities provide information on COVID-19, vaccine

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."

"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."

ABC News' Joshua Ascher, Connor Burton and Rachel Hein contributed to this report.

PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)
PHOTO: Dr. Katrine Bengaard and three fellow female healthcare workers deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural Alaska. (Dr. Katrine Bengaard)

All-female team delivers COVID-19 vaccines by snowmobile in harshest of conditions in rural Alaska originally appeared on goodmorningamerica.com