Special Delivery: COVID-19 vaccines administered to elders in two Interior Alaskan villages
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - As the nearly full moon set below the hills on a cold morning at the Fairbanks International Airport, a bush plane from Fort Yukon landed with a small blue cooler that held very special cargo. Inside the cooler were 30 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which would be distributed to elders in two Interior Alaska villages later that day.
First though, the cooler and Kelly Fields, the Council of Athabascan Tribal Government (CATG) Health Department executive administrator, needed to board a Piper Navajo bush plane and fly to the village of Rampart to pick up the health aide who would be administering the vaccines.
As Fields was waiting in the lobby of Wright Air Service, the company that chartered the aircraft for the special flight, she talked about the significance of their mission.
“In villages we are really remote, and we can’t access medical hospitals as easily as everybody else,” Fields said.
Once they picked up Kimberly Amdon, the health aide from Rampart, the plane took off bound for Beaver, Alaska to vaccinate 10 elders in the village. As the plane flew across the vast wilderness of Alaska, the pilot, Daniel Hayden, mused about aviation in the 49th state. He said that while for many places it is a luxury, Alaska has only nine major highways in a state that makes up 1/5 of the United States - and that makes flying a necessity.
“It’s mind boggling what these things are capable of doing - and right now, look at the purpose we are serving. We are flying this vaccine. Who knows where it originated from, somewhere in the country. Gets shipped up here to Alaska, and the last part of the puzzle to get it to the patients, put it on one of these little airplanes and fly it out there - and I get to do it. I feel actually privileged to be taking this out to the community,” Hayden said.
After a short 30 minute flight the plane was nearly in Beaver. Hayden flew low over the small community of around 50 people to let them know he was there and then turn around to land.
At the village health clinic, Paul Williams Sr., an 84 year old elder spoke about the significance of getting the vaccine while Amdon prepared the doses.
“I think it is a good thing that they developed vaccine in such a short time. I remember several I went through, several epidemics,” Williams said. He went on to say that often many of his native people died because of these sicknesses. He thanked the President and drug companies for making them available in such a short amount of time. He said that if COVID-19 came to Beaver he would probably be the first one to go, but now that he is getting the vaccine, “I have a chance to live longer. That’s what it means to me. Do more things, you know?” He said that there is a lot of work to do to preserve his culture and language, adding that if this vaccine keeps him alive it will allow him to continue his work.
After the vaccines where administered in Beaver and all the elders had undergone their 15 minute observation period, the team loaded back into the bush plane to fly to Venetie. Once in Venetie, vaccines were administered to 20 elders in the village. Before the first vaccine was given, Gary Simple Sr., an elder and pastor in Venetie prayed over them.
“Lord God, bless every vaccine, Father God, that it would be a blessing to everyone that takes it Father God. In Jesus’ name amen,” Simple prayed. He said he wasn’t afraid to get the vaccine, and hoped that by getting it he would encourage others and make them more comfortable with taking it so that life could return to normal.
After the last elders left the clinic in Venetie, Fields, Amdon, and the pilot Hayden loaded into the airplane to fly home. While long, Fields says the day’s effort was worth it. “It was a huge success, I loved it... The smiles on the elders hands down, that made it all worthwhile.”
Hayden agreed, saying that the people seemed happy and encouraged that they soon may be able to fellowship in the small communities again. “It gave me a little bit of a boost to see their moods and to see them be happy and optimistic.”
The crew will fly the route again in a few weeks to administer the second doses of the vaccine and ensure that the elders of the Native Alaskan communities stay protected as much as possible.
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