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

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 December 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

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

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

On Thursday, YKHC began COVID-19 vaccinations of front-line health care workers in Bethel as well as residents and staff of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Elders Home in Bethel. They’re part of phase 1a in the vaccine schedule.

Phase 1b is expected to include essential workers, people with high-risk medical conditions and adults over 65 years old, though the state’s Vaccine Allocation Committee needs to sign off on the plan. YKHC said in a press release that the 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.

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)

One of those passengers is Connie Sankwich was there, waiting to fly out. She said that 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,” Sankwich 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, also said that the vaccine was a good thing, but he isn’t going to take it. He said that he doesn’t take the flu vaccine and won’t take this coronavirus vaccine either, but he supports people who want to get it.

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

The woman next to him also never gets the flu shot. Her name is Michelle, and because she’s 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 that she does plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and 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.”

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 to a blue health corporation SUV waiting outside, which carried 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.

The 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, of sickness and death from this virus.

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

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