Iditarod says musher who tested positive for COVID-19 likely became infected before race

A dog team drives down a white trail with fans in the background on a sunny day
Gunnar Johnson and his dog team travel down the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 7, 2021. (Bill Roth/ADN)

Iditarod officials are trying to track down two mushers who may have been exposed to COVID-19 when they shared a tent with Gunnar Johnson before he tested positive for the illness.

Johnson’s COVID-19 test came back positive Wednesday afternoon in McGrath — a major checkpoint more than a third of the way into the competition. 

The Iditarod says 52-year-old Johnson did not have symptoms. 

He was removed from the race after the positive test, isolated in a tent and later flown off the trail.

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

Meanwhile, race officials began tracing who Johnson may have had close contact with over the last 300 miles of trail and multiple checkpoints.

That process “doesn’t include any sleep,” said Dr. Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist working with the Iditarod.

“The race marshal and I have been going through all of the time in and outs for all the mushers,” she said in a call with reporters Thursday. “What we’re really trying to do is pinpoint who was in Nikolai during Gunnar’s 24-hour time that he had there.”

Nikolai is the checkpoint before McGrath, and it’s where Johnson and his 14 dogs took a required 24-hour break from racing.

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

Guest said Johnson did not go into any buildings during the race. 

But he did share a tent with two other mushers in Nikolai. Who, exactly, those mushers are remains a mystery. That’s not as implausible as it might sound, said Guest.

“People crawl in and out during the night and you’re not having a lot of conversation. They’re also masked,” she said. “So he’s just not sure who those two people are.” 

Guest said the race did additional COVID-19 testing in Nikolai Thursday, and all results came back negative. 

She also planned to do more testing at the prior checkpoint, Rohn, where Johnson spent nearly four hours Monday evening.

“We have 14 volunteers who are in Rohn right now,” Guest said. “And we’re just going to test all of them to make sure we’re being very, very careful.”

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

The Iditarod believes Johnson was exposed to the coronavirus before the Iditarod began.

Mushers were required to test negative for COVID-19 three times before the race started, including last Thursday and at the starting line Sunday.

man in blue coat stands while women in mask and face shield swabs inside of his nose
Musher Dallas Seavey gets a swab inserted in his nose for a rapid COVID test at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage on Thursday, March 4, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Guest said Johnson was in the car with a dog handler last Friday, and that dog handler tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday. The race began the next day.

Asked if Johnson knew about the positive test before the race started, Guest said: “I don’t have that information.”

Guest said all mushers will now not only get tested for COVID-19 on their way into McGrath, but also on their way back through the checkpoint as they retrace their steps to the finish line near Willow.

Out on the trail, there are currently 41 teams still competing in the Iditarod.

That’s after rookie musher Christopher Parker, of Fairbanks, dropped out of the race Thursday afternoon “in the best interest of his race team,” according to a brief statement from the Iditarod. 

By evening, four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was in the lead.

His team was the first to turn around at the checkpoint of Iditarod, and head back down the trail. He was followed by Ryan Redington, Richie Diehl, Pete Kaiser and Joar Leifseth Ulsom. 

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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