Iditarod musher tests positive for COVID-19, removed from race

A musher on the back of a sled wearing a red-white-and blue hat.
Gunnar Johnson travels down the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 7, 2021. (Bill Roth/ADN)

The Iditarod has announced its first coronavirus case, in a musher at a major mid-race checkpoint.

Gunnar Johnson of Minnesota tested positive for COVID-19 at the checkpoint in McGrath, near race mile 310, more than a third of the way into the Iditarod.

Johnson, 52, was asymptomatic, according to a statement from the Iditarod Wednesday night.

RELATED: Follow all of our coverage of the 2021 Iditarod here.

Race officials required mushers to test negative for COVID-19 three times before the Iditarod began — the last swab taken hours before Sunday’s start.

Johnson’s next COVID-19 test, along with all the other mushers, was upon arrival in McGrath. He had stopped for at least three hours at four other checkpoints along the way.

The McGrath checkpoint is based at an airplane hangar this year, instead of in town, as a COVID-19 precaution. Race officials are also requiring face masks at checkpoints, and have strict rules about who can be there.

A snowmachiner on Tuesday drags a pallet to smooth out snow lanes in the new dog lot which has been set up in McGrath to accommodate COVID precautions. (Zachariah Hughes/ADN)

Johnson and his 14-dog team pulled into McGrath around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to race standings.

The musher took a rapid test just outside the checkpoint. He tested positive, then tested positive twice more on molecular-based tests, the Iditarod statement said.

Johnson is now being isolated in a large tent, and “will be removed off the trail using safe transport,” the statement said.

“Johnson did not come into close contact with race personnel or community members, nor did he enter any buildings or community spaces in McGrath,” the statement said. “However, he did park his team, as he was planning to rest at the checkpoint.”

More than 20 teams were also resting at the McGrath checkpoint Wednesday afternoon, including front-runners Dallas Seavey, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Pete Kaiser, who were on their mandatory 24-hour layovers.

A largely empty airplane hangar, except for some mats on the floor and a table.
Mushers who take their 24 hour rests in McGrath have access to a small airplane hangar to rest in. (Zachariah Hughes/for ADN)

The Iditarod did not say how many people Johnson might have been in close contact with along the trail before arriving in McGrath. It said its COVID-19 team is in the process of contact tracing. 

Before McGrath, Johnson had stopped for his own mandatory, 24-hour break at the checkpoint on the outskirts of Nikolai. He also stopped for multiple hours in Rainy Pass, Rohn and Skwentna. 

RELATED: Iditarod update: The trail gets shorter, and the race field gets smaller

Race officials withdrew Johnson from this year’s Iditarod at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday.

“He is incredibly disappointed and felt his dog team looked great,” the Iditarod’s statement said.

This year was Johnson’s third Iditarod, and he was racing with dogs from veteran musher Jim Lanier’s kennel. Johnson placed 48th in his last Iditarod, in 2017. 

In a Facebook post Wednesday night, Lanier’s wife, Anna Bondarenko, wrote that they were devastated to learn of Johnson’s positive test.

“COVID could happen to anyone. We did everything we could to assure everyone’s safety. Jim and I were fully vaccinated in February,” she wrote. “Please keep Gunnar Johnson in your positive thoughts. He worked so hard to train and prepare for this Iditarod.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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