Project Togo underway with nearly three times the COVID-19 vaccine doses expected for Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

Two people carry a large box into a walk-in freezer.
A shipment of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations lands in Bethel, Alaska and is transferred to a deep freezer at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation on Dec. 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Nearly 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Bethel last week. It was a welcome surprise: It was nearly three times as many doses as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation expected.

Public health officials said it will speed up distribution of the vaccine.

On Thursday, YKHC began vaccinating front-line health care workers in Bethel, as well as residents and staff of Bethel’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Elder’s Home. They’re part of phase 1a in the vaccine distribution schedule.

Phase 1b is expected to include essential workers, people with high-risk medical conditions and adults over 65, though the state’s Vaccine Allocation Committee still needs to sign off on that plan. YKHC said in a press release that extra doses will let them start phase 1b “much sooner than anticipated.”

KYUK was at the Bethel airport when the night jet arrived with one of the shipments.

Someone fills out a form at a table.
A YKHC staff member signs for a shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Bethel airport on Dec. 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Passenger Connie Sankwich was waiting to fly out. She said she’s ready to take the vaccine as soon as possible.

“I’m a cancer survivor, and I have complications as a result of chemo,” she said. “In fact, I’m going in for a doctor’s appointment tonight.”

Another passenger, Chris Aparicio, was also ready to take the vaccine.

“If it slows it down, keeps people from dying and keeps people from spreading it, it’s a good thing,” Aparicio said. “Things got to return back to normal.”

Normal for him means reliable work in construction.

“I’ve probably lost six months of work this year. Six months of income. Puts me behind on my bills and took money out of my savings. Hurts my family,” Aparicio said.

Another man in line, who didn’t want to give his name, said the vaccine was a good thing but he won’t be taking it. He said he doesn’t get the flu vaccine either, but supports people who do.

“Everyone is built different, immune system-wise, so hopefully it helps them out,” he said.

The woman next to him, Michelle, also said she never gets the flu shot. A nurse at the hospital, she didn’t want to give her last name.

“I’ve had a lot of patients that have passed from the COVID — young ones,” Michelle said.

She said she does plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine. As a front-line health care worker, she soon could, but she’s going to hold off.

“I want to personally do my own research,” she said. “This vaccine just came out in the last six months. This COVID thing has only been around for a year.”

The jet with the vaccine touched down around 7:30 p.m. On board were two boxes filled with doses of the vaccine and one with dry ice. Writing on top of the boxes read: “COVID-19 Vaccine. Rush. Perishable. Please notify addressee immediately.”

Two lab technicians wearing protective equipment transfer vials from a box.
YKHC staff members package vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

A forklift carried the boxes across the room and outside to a blue health corporation SUV, which drove them to the YKHC administrative building. They were bound for a giant white freezer on the third floor that can keep the vaccines at the required ultra-cold temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

YKHC workers put on white gowns, masks, goggles and gloves before cutting open the box, taking out thick layers of packaging material. Then, in a coordinated motion, one lifted out the tray of vaccines while her coworker opened the large freezer door. Finally, the doses of coronavirus vaccine were safely inside after months of loss and grief, sickness and death from the virus.

The next day, YKHC charter flights — part of Project Togo — began the work of vaccinating all eligible village-based health care workers across the Y-K Delta.

KYUK’s Greg Kim and Katie Basile contributed reporting to this story.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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