Project Togo: “Light on the horizon” as Y-K Delta plans first distribution of COVID-19 vaccine

A woman dressed in a white lab coat stands in front of a table. Another woman with protective gear stands in a dooray befhind her.
Yukon-Kuskokswim Health Center employees work at Bethel’s COVID-19 testing site. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, health officials said the first batch should arrive in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in a matter of days. When that occurs, the region’s health corporation will immediately begin distributing the vaccine throughout the area.

The first vaccine shipment will include 1,000 doses. Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, laid out where those doses will go.

“First will be our nursing home residents in our Elder’s Home, the employees who work there and care for those people, and then health care providers and first responders,” Hodges said.

The vaccine has to be kept at the ultra-cold temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The right kind of freezer just happened to be right in Bethel, down the highway at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus. Campus leaders reached out to the health corporation and offered the use of the ultra-cold freezer.

But because the vaccine has to be stored at such a low temperature, YKHC can’t ship it out to villages.

“We’re going to have to go to them with the vaccine, a vaccinator, and a pilot,” Hodges said.

All on small charter planes.

“And fly from village to village and vaccinate those individuals on the runway, basically, and then move onto the next village,” Hodges said.

The village clinic workers will line up on the runway, bare their arms in the winter wind, and get inoculated.

The vaccine requires two doses. The first shipment will cover the first dose, and the second shipment should arrive two weeks later. The second dose of the Pfizer vaccine needs to be delivered as close as possible to 21 days after the first to be effective. Each person will receive a card with the date that they’re scheduled to receive their second dose.

But this is rural Alaska in winter, when storms often ground planes for days. Hodges is hoping for good weather. Regardless, she said the health corporation has decades of experience in getting temperature-sensitive medical supplies to villages across the region.

“We’re going to use those same lessons learned from all of those to try to get this done as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Hodges said.

The number of people testing positive for the virus in the region over the past two weeks has fallen slightly. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta still has the highest case rate in the state, and one of the highest in the country, at 122 cases per 100,000 people. In the city of Bethel alone, the case rate exceeds any state’s overall case rate at 355 cases per 100,000 people. And in at least four communities, over a quarter of residents have tested positive for the virus.

The impact of the coronavirus on the region has been outsized, and terrible. Dr. Hodges has been at the forefront of the response to the virus in the region since the pandemic began.

“It’s hard to describe the relief I felt when I heard that we would actually receive an allocation [of vaccines],” Hodges said.

As more doses become available over the next year, Hodges’ goal is to get every person in the region vaccinated, even people who have already tested positive for the virus. Research shows that immunity from a vaccine lasts longer than natural immunity from the virus.

In the meantime, she said, this is no time for people to drop their guard.

“It is still going to be a long winter, and this is still just one tool in the many tools we need to combat this deadly and very contagious disease,” Hodges said. “We still have to wear masks. We still have to wash our hands. We still have to keep our social circles small. But I see a little light on the horizon.”

The regional vaccination plan has a special name: Project Togo. Named after the lead sled dog during the 1925 serum run, when dog teams mushed life-saving antitoxins across Alaska to quell the diphtheria outbreak in Nome and end the town’s quarantine.

Hopefully, Togo can deliver again.