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Difficulties delivering COVID-19 vaccines to rural Alaska, tribes

In rural Alaska, vaccine vials have been airlifted to villages by a fleet of chartered planes while others need to be piloted through choppy seas on a water taxi.

Delivering coronavirus vaccines to everyone across the United States, including individuals in rural parts of Alaska, is no small feat.

Vials have been airlifted to villages by a fleet of chartered planes while others need to be piloted through choppy seas on a water taxi to some of the most sparse regions, according to KTOO. That doesn't even include the harsh winter weather the state is experiencing.

An all-female team consisting of a pharmacist, medical doctor and two nurses had to travel by plane, sled and snowmobile to deliver vaccines to people in northern Alaska, according to GMA.

"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," Meredith Dean told GMA on Friday.

Another concern is Alaska's Indigenous tribes' gaining access to COVID-19 testing, treatment and protective equipment, tribal health care leaders said. Luckily a partnership with the Trump administration has reduced disparities. 

The administration’s coronavirus initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments, Alaska Public Media reported Thursday.

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Operation Warp Speed, as the initiative is known, designated vaccine doses for tribes in the same manner as it did for the Department of Defense, Veterans Health Administration and Bureau of Prisons.

The federal government distributed more than 35,000 doses to Alaska tribes, in addition to 78,000 doses to Alaska’s state government. More than 250,000 doses were dedicated to tribes nationwide through the Indian Health Service.

"One thing that a lot of us feel when we live and work out here is that we're a little bit forgotten," Dr. Katrine Bengaard from Alaska said in an interview with NPR. "But I feel like with the way that this COVID vaccine has been distributed, we don't feel forgotten at all."

While tribal providers are vaccinating Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, state and Native leaders said there is a legal basis for separate shipments because of longstanding recognition of tribes as sovereign governments.

Officials said the decision also is appropriate from a scientific and medical standpoint because of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Alaska Native people and the dynamics in many rural communities that make the virus difficult to control.

Factors include crowded, multi-generational homes, lack of running water and sewer and distance from advanced medical care.

“It’s never been about equal distribution of the vaccine. It’s about equitable distribution,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. chief of staff. “The congregate living settings that exist in most of our villages are a setup for the virus to just spread like wildfire, and there’s no defense against that.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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