Iditarod will require COVID vaccines this year, its third pandemic-altered race

The Takotna checkpoint is a popular spot for mushers to take their mandatory 24 hour layover during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Takotna will not host mushers this year. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The Iditarod has finalized its coronavirus mitigation plan, which requires all mushers and anyone else associated with the race to be fully vaccinated.

In its 50th year, the thousand-mile sled dog race across Alaska returns to a more normal route from Willow to Nome in 2022, after a pandemic-altered, out-and-back course last year, but there will still be some big changes due to COVID.

A man rests near his sled
Pete Kaiser resting at the Old Woman Cabin between Kaltag and Unalakleet on Sunday, March 15, 2020, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Aside from the vaccination policy, mushers won’t be able to stop at Takotna, one of the most popular checkpoints on the trail. The race’s board of directors says it made those decisions with feedback from communities in rural Alaska. 

While some mushers may have been hoping for a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine mandate heading into the race, veteran musher Pete Kaiser, who will start his 13th Iditarod this year, said he was vaccinated even before last year’s race.

“As far as I’m aware, everybody who signed up in June was aware of the requirement to be vaccinated,” Kaiser said from his home in Bethel, where he trains his team.

The 2019 Idiatrod champion is Alaska Native, he was born and raised in rural Alaska and he said he thinks the Iditarod made “a good call.”

“Any precautionary steps you can take I think are good,” Kaiser said. “It seems to be proven and shown that the vaccine helps not only from getting the virus but from having symptoms be less deadly.”

But Wade Marrs disagrees with the new requirement. Marrs has finished in the top 10 four times since 2015 and raced every year since 2012. In November, he announced his withdrawal from the 2022 Iditarod because of the vaccine mandate. He said he is not anti-vaccine and he believes COVID is real, but said his decision not to vaccinate is between himself, his family and his doctors.

Marrs said he understands the Iditarod wants to protect residents in the small rural communities that serve as checkpoints.

An Iditarod musher gives the hang-ten sin.
Wade Marrs, of Willow, waves to fans at the start of the 2021 Iditarod. (Marc Lester/ADN)

“I don’t blame the race for doing what’s right by them,” he said. “But at this point in time, we all know that you get and spread the virus either way, so the fact that we need the vaccine to not spread the virus is kind of silly.”

Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said requiring vaccination is necessary to protect everyone along the trail.

“It’s pretty simple. We couldn’t go to Nome without it,” Urbach said. “We all know you can still get COVID if you’re vaccinated and boostered, but it’s pretty well-known that you’re less likely to be shedding virus for a longer period of time. And so therefore the risk is diminished by being vaccinated.”

In 2021, to avoid a major influx of outsiders into villages, the Iditarod followed a new route — coined the Gold Trail Loop — from Willow to the former mining town of Iditarod and back.

This year, the race follows its traditional northern route, which means it will pass through 14 predominantly Indigenous villages.

“Many of these rural communities certainly don’t have an ICU much less ventilators, so why not reduce the risk?” Urbach said. “It’s much more than just vaccinations. It’s distancing, hygiene, masking, etc. We’ve reengineered how we eat, sleep and fly. There’s daily testing, masking. We’re not hugging and shaking hands.” 

Urbach said the race is also trying to navigate the local policies put in place by tribal and city councils in the communities that serve as checkpoints. 

In Unalakleet, for example, a stop on the trail along the Bering Sea, the city council passed a mask mandate this week for all public spaces after a surge of coronavirus cases in that community. 

A musher goes into a village.
Nicolas Petit mushing into Unalakleet in the lead of the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media photo)

According to a city council member in White Mountain, where mushers are required to stop for eight hours, the city council currently requires all visitors to show proof of a vaccine or a negative COVID test 72 hours prior to arriving there. 

Pies on a table
Takotna is well-know for its homemade pie. This year, the checkpoint will not be open to race personnel or dog teams. (Emily Schwing)

Also this week, the Tribal Chief in Takotna confirmed that village — a popular spot for mushers to take a mandatory 24-hour break and nosh on homemade pie — will not serve as a race checkpoint at all for the 2022 race.

“If somebody makes a decision in the community, it’s their right to not want to have the Iditarod ecosystem travel through their community. It’s their right to say you don’t have access,” Urbach said of Takotna, without providing any further explanation. The Takotna tribal office also declined to talk about what led to the change.

Iditarod fans have also weighed in on social media about the race’s vaccination policy. One accused the race of targeting specific mushers for elimination from the competition.

Other fans believe the vaccine requirement is only fitting for a race that memorializes the so-called 1925 Great Race of Mercy, when dog mushers relayed life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome, nearly a century ago.

The 2022 Iditarod is scheduled to start the first weekend in March. There are 52 mushers signed up to compete.

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