Editor’s note: This is a two-part story chronicling the journey of mobile vaccine teams to the fly-in community of Old Crow. It was funded with support from the National Geographic Society. Part two will be published May 7.
It’s a dark, cold morning on the runway at the Whitehorse airport. Nurse Kelsey Short sits in the aisle seat at the back of Air North flight 171. Beside her, taking up the entirety of the window seat, is a plain white box.
“That might be a problem,” comes a voice from behind her at the tail end of the plane.
The box, packed with doses of the Moderna vaccine, could be the solution to a pandemic that has killed millions and locked down borders for a year. Short is wary of moving it out of her sight.
Its placement is also contrary to Transport Canada cargo rules, though Short reiterates: this isn’t ordinary cargo.
Eventually, they find a spot for the box. Strapped to the floor two feet away, it’s only a shoulder check away from Short. She relents with a laugh.
“It’s alright. It’s just kind of my baby,” she explains.
“I mean, this is the whole reason we’re on this plane is what’s in this box right here,” she’ll explain later. “It was really drilled into us that like you can’t shake it. You can’t drop it. You can’t leave it unattended. It is like a baby basically. If I’m walking with a whole box of like, 100 doses, it’s like, okay, don’t fall. Don’t let this go flying.”
Short is the lead nurse for Team Togo, one of two crack teams composed of about 30 clinical and logistic staff tasked with delivering and administering the vaccine to the Yukon’s outer communities.
In three hours the plane will touch down in the Yukon’s most remote community. In 12 hours, Old Crow will become one of the first communities in the world to reach estimated herd immunity levels of vaccination.
COVID-19 in Old Crow
Old Crow is not the smallest of the Yukon’s communities, but it is the most remote. Located 128 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the village of 250 residents – almost all citizens of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation – is fly-in only. In order to receive supplies the community relies heavily on the territorial airline, of which they own 49 per cent.
News of the pandemic reached Old Crow on the same timeline as the rest of the world.
“It was scary to see what was breaking out across the world and the implications for our community, as a First Nation community and the only fly-in community in the Yukon,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.
Physically isolated and close to nature, southerners may look at communities like Old Crow – or even Whitehorse – as ideal places to wait out a pandemic. By January 2021, the Yukon had only seen 60 cases and one death from COVID-19.
But access to healthcare in the North is limited. Community health centres, including the one in Old Crow, have no access to ventilators and are usually staffed by two or three nurses.
Normally, the village is famous for its hospitality. But in March 2020 the Vuntut Gwitchin government was forced to pass emergency legislation that would close the community and impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone with permission to enter.
Planning begins for vaccination
Two mobile vaccination teams were tasked with delivering the vaccine to the communities. The teams were named for the famous sled dogs – Balto and Togo – who completed the final run to bring diphtheria serum to the Alaskan community of Nome in 1925.
As the territorial government negotiated supply and delivery with Ottawa, Team Togo and Team Balto began to assemble.
“The planning involved was astronomical,” explained Togo logistical lead Dwayne Rogowski. “How are we going to get there? What complement of folks do we need? What are the roles going to look like? How are we going to operate as a team when we get there? Where do we want to go?”
Volunteers from multiple government divisions and departments – including people from wildland fire, emergency services, IT, health and social, EMS and finance – volunteered to fill different roles, from greeters and cleaners to record-keepers and vaccinators. In a matter of weeks, they went from strangers to friends.
“Quite honestly my job is the easiest job on this team. I just need to make sure that these people have what they need to do their jobs and be their best,” said Rogowski. “I would do all of this over again in a heartbeat, if I could bring the same team with me.”
The clinical team, composed of nurses and pharmacists from around the territory, would handle the inoculations.
Myra Iles was one of the nurses on Team Balto.
When she was very young, Iles was given a Northern Tutchone name – Dän Ts’in nonje. It means “people’s helper,” and she has taken the role seriously her whole life.
“I was basically trying to retire, but this really called to me, and so I put my name forward. I upgraded my license from non-practicing to practicing and jumped in the ring and was invited to be part of Team Balto on the first round,” she said.
Like Short, Iles volunteered for the role. Iles is a former tuberculosis nurse in the territory and she knew her presence would be a comfort to those who had questions about the vaccine.
There are Indigenous people in the territory who have memories of contracting TB only to be whisked away to a southern hospital without a chance to say goodbye. To this day, many people must leave the territory and spend months away from families in order to receive medical care.
“That history really follows us, as medical providers. Many generations that follow that experience are still wary when interacting with medical personnel. It was very important for me to be part of this,” Iles said.
It was important to establish trust in the vaccine effort by bringing the clinics to the communities, according to Frost. The teams in Whitehorse worked closely with community liaisons.
“We were there making sure that the community felt protected, they felt respected, and they were coming in the door knowing that we were there to address any of the concerns that they might have,” she said.
The first vaccines
“We all know, in the back of our minds, what the implications are for the elders in our community. And the passing of one elder is like the burning of a library with the amount of information and experience lost,” said Chief Tizya-Tramm.
“It is more than just the passing of a grandparent, or of a father or mother. This is the passing and the last ability to reach and embrace our past elders and ancestors through the older generations today.”
Back in Whitehorse, the task of inoculating long-term care residents and workers in Whitehorse began on Jan. 4.
Vuntut Gwitchin elder Agnes Mills, who is 84 and lives in Whitehorse at the Whistle Bend Continuing Care Facility, was the first person in the territory to receive the vaccine.
“I feel very privileged and I did it because I want all people to know that there is an answer to what’s happening within our lives right now. I wouldn’t take this if I didn’t think this was going to help,” she said after receiving her first dose.
Like many Indigenous children in Canada, Mills was sent away from her family and community in Old Crow as a child to attend a residential school. Conditions were cruel. Many children were abused and disease was rampant at church-run schools whose mandate was to “take the Indian out of the child.”
When a wave of TB infected the school Mills was sent away again, this time to a hospital in the northern community of Aklavik. The 13-year-old girl was hospitalized for three years.
Second to get the shot was Mary Merchant, a 103-year-old survivor of the Spanish flu.
The decision to vaccinate these two elders and share their extraordinary stories was deliberate, said Frost.
“These two elders, they lived through a pandemic, but their friends and families didn’t,” she said. “Because we have the luxuries, we have the infrastructure, we have the services and we have a vaccine. That story is amazing, the era from then to now.”
Three weeks after Mills received her first dose, Team Balto is scheduled to travel to Old Crow to share the vaccine with her family and the rest of the community.
Old Crow will be the first journey trip with Moderna completed by air – and despite all the logistical planning and drills Team Balto had completed, Arctic winter weather will remain a wildcard.
This work was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org