As Alaska continues to battle the COVID-19 disease with cases increasing across the state on a daily basis, Alaskans are coming together to help the medical community through what health officials are calling an unprecedented pandemic in modern history.
Everyone from sewers to brewers to the University of Alaska itself are stepping up to help out through whatever means possible.
Local Fairbanks distiller Toivo Luick, co-owner of Hoarfrost Distilling, has set aside his vodka production in favor of another kind of alcohol — hand sanitizer.
Luick, who owns the business with his wife Natalya Medvedeva, told the Daily News-Miner Friday afternoon that he saw a need in the community and realized he could fill it with equipment he already had.
“The idea came up through February and early March. There was a lot of talk about how coronavirus was going to impact the U.S. and we were thinking about what we could do,” Luick said. “We’re professional vodka makers and having a distillery, there’s a lot of rules you have to follow. I was a little hesitant to get involved with hand sanitizer because of all of the rules but we saw a story in the news about Shine Distilling, a company in Portland who was doing it."
The Portland business had a formula that worked around the distillery rules, so Luick gave them a call.
With his tasting room ordered closed by state mandate, Hoarfrost converted its entire production to the making of hand sanitizing solution.
“With the amount of panic buying and shortages that are going on, we thought well we can make hand sanitizer, we can’t make enough for all of Fairbanks but maybe we can reduce the panic buying,” Luick said. “We intend to keep doing that for a while. It’s 4 ounces per person who comes and we strongly encourage folks to bring your own container. We don’t have a lot of bottles.”
The business has also been working to provide larger amounts of the sanitizing solution to local nonprofits and other organizations like the hospital and local police.
The process is similar to how Luick and his staff make their vodka, with a few significant changes.
“We’re taking Alaskan barley and cooking and digesting and fermenting sugar into alcohol and that normally goes on into our vodka process,” Luick said. “We’re not purifying it nearly as much as we would for our vodka and we are distilling it to 90% alcohol and then making a gel using xanthan gum to give it a little more substance.”
The sanitizer is free, Luick said, noting that he is really just trying to help mitigate the shortages in the stores.
With the recent state mandates regulating non-essential businesses, Hoarfrost is open for members of the public to pick up sanitizer from 3-6:30 p.m. and limiting the number of individuals who can come into their tasting at one time.
Sewers across the Fairbanks community are also stepping up to hand-make surgical masks for patients and healthcare providers. While masks made from conventional cloth can be given to patients as they enter a facility until they can be given a surgical-grade mask, Foundation Health Partners CEO Shelley Ebenal noted that some in the community are even crafting masks out of surgical grade material now which the hospital will sterilize using an autoclave machine and package for later use.
After the sewing trend grew in popularity, the foundation even compiled a YouTube video instructing community members on methods that are more conducive to medical-grade structure. The link can be found at https://bit.ly/3axnHZt
The hospital is currently not running low on masks, but anything that the community is willing to provide is welcome, officials say.
“This is exciting,” Ebenal said, thanking volunteers who have been sewing since last week. “Please keep sewing.”
Additionally, the University of Alaska has stepped up to assist in state and local efforts. While the institution weathers its own financial storm associated with the virus — including having to move thousands of classes online and move students out of residence halls — UA President Jim Johnsen said he didn’t bat an eye when the university saw needs it could fill.
Since the onset of state impacts, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Career allied health program at its Career and Technical College has donated at least 3,000 surgical masks and 150 gowns it had in its stores.
The university has also mobilized its stores of personal protective equipment from all across the state. These were PPEs the university had for training purposes.
“But we feel the state’s need for emergency preparation and response is absolutely critical and supersedes our needs on the education side,” Johnsen said.
The university has also donated its stores of swabs, face masks, gowns and gloves.
Johnsen added that UAF is providing technical assistance to the Fairbanks-based state virology lab, which sits on the UAF campus.
“We’re also making facilities available in Fairbanks and Anchorage to the healthcare community,” he said.
The Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage has recently been set up as an overflow medical facility for non-critical patients in need of care.
“We’re also providing advisers to the governor’s office, economists and economic modelers who are thinking about how to weather the storm and about a post-COVID economy, Johnsen said.
Additionally, the university’s business enterprise institute is working to formulate a plan for manufactured medical equipment using 3D printers across the UA system.
“It’s probably not going to be ventilators. But it might be swabs or face masks,” Johnsen said. “Really anything we can do to help.”
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.