Vaccination

Under her mask, Miki Collins is all smiles as she receives her COVID-19 vaccination. Over 90% of the adults in her small community accepted a shot. 

Living in a tiny, remote community has its advantages.

For obvious reasons, medical workers made the top of the list when vaccinations against COVID-19 became available. Vaccination day for volunteers in our local Emergency Rescue Squad (the two of us included) came on Jan. 21, earlier than for the public. If any resident became seriously ill from the disease, it would be up to a squad member to attend to them until transportation to Fairbanks, even if doing so exposed us to the hazards of a potentially-deadly virus.

Getting vaccinated was a no-brainer.

Providing injections to the rescue squad, composed of nearly a third of our current winter population of about 15 people, required a chartered small aircraft flight out from Fairbanks for a nurse and a couple helpers. This would be followed by a second flight three weeks later for the booster injection.

Then, because the Powers that Be did not want to make two additional flights to fully inoculate the last dozen or fewer residents, they decided to just vaccinate everyone in the community, getting it all done in the most efficient manner possible.

I know questions (and misinformation) linger about the safety of a vaccine created in a matter of months, but, due to the urgency of the situation, I did not hesitate to sign up.

This is a matter of civic duty in addition to self-preservation. Of the qualified residents — three children had not attained the minimum age of 16 — only one declined the vaccine, a compliance rate of over 90%, easily reaching local herd immunity. Even a trapper working some distance to the west flew in for his shot.

Millions of people have now received one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines. To my admittedly-limited knowledge, in spite of a tiny number of allergic reactions, not one healthy person has died or had lasting adverse effects as a direct result of the vaccination. During that time, the disease has killed well over 100,000 grandpas and grandmas, parents, grandkids and great-grandparents in the United States. The trade-off between a potentially-fatal disease and a tested and retested vaccine proven to be over 90% effective at preventing hospitalization and death seems like a pretty darn good bargain to me.

Quickly slowing or halting the spread of the virus also decreases the likelihood of new strains developing, such as the South African variety that may be partially-resistant to the current vaccine.

The three of us traveled six miles to the community building, my sister Julie by snowmachine and our niece Karen towing on skis behind my dog team. Each household entered the library as a discreet group at their appointed time, masked and maintaining distance from others.

After just a few minutes of answering questions (allergies?), I slipped into a separate little room, answered a few more questions (allergies?), and in seconds the deed was done. The injection in my upper arm, predictably, hurt no more than a flu shot, and I followed up by moving the arm around to help disperse the vaccine, decreasing any post-injection pain.

We all had to hang around for 15 minutes in case of an allergic response (30 minutes for me, because I once had a serious reaction to an antibiotic). During the interim we gratefully took advantage of sandwich fixings brought from Fairbanks, augmented by typically-delicious local pot luck foods (and hand sanitizer).

While the vaccine seems to prevent serious illness, it may not prevent someone from carrying and spreading the virus. Even post-injection we are advised that masks remain a critical part of preventing post-vaccine contagion so schools and businesses and life can go on. (Oh yes, masks DO dramatically reduce transmission.)

We have learned enough from reliable sources — the CDC, Johns Hopkins, the News-Miner and Public Radio, and even our technical emergency medicine magazines — to have a healthy respect for this strange and virulent disease. While many people can spread the virus to numerous others without ever knowing they are infected, a certain percentage will die, often from viral pneumonia but also from organ failure, stroke, heart attack and other weird, unpredictable problems frequently related to disease-caused blood clotting disorders.

This makes COVID-19 many times more lethal than your average flu (although still less deadly than the 1918 flu pandemic that devastated much of Alaska). Another significant number of COVID-19 sufferers become “long haulers,” suffering for weeks or months — perhaps years, and perhaps permanently — from a range of symptoms including severe fatigue, breathing difficulty, debilitating aches and pains, brain fog, nerve problems, gut problems, and even, as Valerie Amato, of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, wrote in the December 2020 issue of EMS World magazine, “COVID toes and hair loss.”

Yikes. Imagine not even being able to walk up stairs or to the outhouse without stopping to rest.

Except for minor pain around the injection site and equally minor fatigue the following day, we felt no repercussions from our vaccination adventures. And on Feb. 11 — the day I expect to mail this to our editor of this newspaper and before you’ve even read these words — you can be sure community members here will be eagerly awaiting their second dose.

We are committed to being a part of the solution to the tragedies of 2020, not part of the problem. Vaccination is our best bet for doing so.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.