Vaccinating the villages

A team from Tanana Chiefs Conference boards a plane Tuesday morning, Feb. 16, 2021, for Chalkyitsik to deliver a round of vaccinations. Alena Naiden/News-Miner

COVID-19 vaccines do great in the cold, but the planes carrying them don’t. So when temperatures in Interior Alaska dropped to frigid levels last week, it took one plane to fly out a vaccinating crew to Tanana — and three planes to bring them back.

“The typical cut-off is an ambient temperature of past 40 below: that’s when the planes won’t fly,” said Daniel Nelson, director of the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center pharmacy. Several flights were canceled that week when the temperature reached the absolute no-go mark, but on the day of the flight to Tanana, it was only 38 below.”

“The plane went out,” said Crystal Stordahl, community health aide program director who also oversees flight logistics. She explained charter planes usually drop the team at a village and come back to Fairbanks so the pilot and the plane don’t get cold waiting there all day. “Then they go back at night and fetch the crew.”

“It was six of us that day,” said Lisa Donat, a home care program coordinator who helps vaccinate people and monitor them after they get their shots. “When we got out, the plane came at 4 p.m. to get us, and one of the engines wouldn’t start. It was something with the wind flaps.”

The village cooled down throughout the day, intensifying flying conditions. Besides, “just like with cars and with everything, things could go wrong with an airplane,” Stordahl said.

The team had to call back to Fairbanks and ask for a second plane. While Tanana is only an hour flight away from the East Ramp of the airport, it took additional time to heat up another plane. “Obviously, it was cold in Fairbanks too,” Nelson said.

The second plane landed, and everyone piled in it to go home, but that one wouldn’t start either.

“And I go, ‘Oh my Lord mercy!’’ said Stordahl, who was in contact with the vaccinating crew. “Third pilot, third plane go out and fetch the team. Thankfully, the third time they were successful! It was really kind of surreal that day, hearing, ‘We are on our third plane.’ Really?”

TCC uses eight-seat charter planes from Warbelow’s Air Ventures, and Stordahl sent six people to Tanana that day. The first rescue plane would actually fit all of the team and the pilot, but by the time the third plane came, there were nine people needing a flight, and one of the pilots stayed behind until the next flight.

Donat said that she wasn’t too worried about potentially staying in the village.

“Yes, that one was a little close,” she laughed. “But it was fine — I would have found a place for us to spend the night.” She explained that when she travels to villages for her regular job, she often needs to stay overnight, though during those trips she also brings a sleeping bag and all her necessities with her.

Stordahl was a little more concerned about her team not returning to Fairbanks that day — many of them needed to be in another village the next morning. But the whole team came back, and after finishing their workday at 8 p.m., many of them woke up at 5 a.m. the day after to go back to the airport and get ready for another day of vaccinating the villages.

“I can’t sing their praises enough,” Stordahl said. “They all work really hard, putting in the hours and putting in the effort. They are all connected to our villages — these are the people who work in these villages on the regular basis, so they feel a very strong connection to them.”

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.